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Memorial Day wasn't easy for Julie. Her mom's birthday was May 31. And her mom had officially declared that the period between Mother's Day-- which, of course, is in the middle of May-- and her birthday would be known in the family as "gala time." Which meant, basically, it would be the one time during the year where mom would get whatever she wanted. Which would've been fine except what mom often wanted was a road trip into the mountains on curvy roads, which didn't match Julie's personal style when Julie was a kid.
I puked everywhere and always. I puked on every road trip from-- I puked any time we were in the car for longer than, like, a half an hour from the age of 4 to the age of 12. I used to be so drugged up on Dramamine, I didn't really ever experience my summer vacations.
Say that again.
I'd be so drugged up on Dramamine.
You would be?
All the time?
That you wouldn't even experience them as vacations?
No, you just sleep. I would just feel glassy-eyed and kind of sweaty. And I remember we went-- it was a whole trip of the Northwest and Canada and coming down the coast. And I didn't see anything. I don't remember anything. I don't remember Glacier. I don't remember Yellowstone. I don't remember Vancouver. I don't remember anything.
For three weeks I was on Dramamine one time. Except for one day, and that one day, I threw up. And so my mom put me back on it. She thought I was getting addicted.
Mm hmm. So she took me off.
But then she was more scared of the throw up than of the addiction.
I, like, power threw up all over the car. And my brother had two pairs of shoes right in front of me and I threw up one in each shoe. So he had to wear a pair of dress shoes and a pair of Nike's. And I threw up in my brother's baseball card collection that was also on the floor in front of me. Different brother.
Well, this is the week of Memorial Day. And the thing about Memorial Day and the beginning of summer is that every person, every family has its Achilles' heel when summer finally arrives. If it's not the one person who gets sick in the car, it's the person who hates the sun; or the one who can't stand the beach; or the person who loves the beach-- loves it so hard, so fiercely so thoroughly that no one else in the family can understand it.
There's a promise of summer, the hope we have of all things getting easier, of more fun, more free time. And then there's the reality of all we have to do to make summer live up to its potential.
But didn't they install little bags or something?
Well, yeah, my brothers did, actually, when we were, like, two and a half weeks into this road trip that we took. They decided all of a sudden that we were going to have puke drills and that we needed to prepare for them like an Olympic team. And so they strategically placed plastic and paper bags all over the place but also had this blanket that they had set up that you could quick pull out. And it would drape across my lap, because I had a problem controlling where it went as well. And also, then, somebody was in charge of opening all the windows. And the other person was in charge of keeping me off their stuff.
And did this work?
No, no. It's chaos when it happens. Because that was the problem. I could never give ample enough warning to really set the whole thing in motion. Because I'd be threatening to do it for, like, three hours. And then everyone would just stop paying attention to me. And then, all of a sudden, it would just happen.
So pretty much, any summer vacation for you is pretty much a bust.
Yes. I hate summer.
You actually hate summer?
Oh, totally, because of the expectations that you're supposed to have a good time, like, your life is supposed to be like a Pepsi commercial or something. And you're supposed to have this great time and because the weather's nice, you're supposed to go to the beach. And because the weather's nice, you're supposed to go to outdoor concerts and have fun and be happy all the time. And you're not supposed to sit in your house and watch TV and get upset. It's just terrible.
And you're supposed to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. It's just awful. It's an awful, terrible time of the year. Nobody wants you to be happy in the winter. You have no pressure to be happy. You can just be whatever you want. You can feel totally justified in being depressed.
But in the summer, it's awful. Everyone wants you to be all happy. And then you just feel like a loser. So you're not even really that depressed about anything in particular other than the fact that you're just like, I kind of just feel like a loser.
The way you're describing it, summer is just like a three-month-long prom date, where you're supposed to go and have a good time, but nobody ever does.
Exactly. I think that's exactly what summer is. Exactly. You feel like such a sucker. But you can't really get out of it.
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, with Memorial Day here, a show about the promise of summer. And this hour on our show, we're going to try something different. Usually, those who are familiar with the show know that we will choose one theme and bring you a variety of all different kinds of stories over the course of the hour. Today, we're going to hear two stories interlaced throughout the hour-- one from Ron Carlson, one from Scott Carrier. We'll hear those stories in a minute. But first, a little mood music.
[MUSIC--"WHO LOVES THE SUMMER" BY VELVET UNDERGROUND]
Well, Act One and Two. Most of our ideas about the start of summer come from school, from that moment when we would get out of school in May or June and feel that flush of freedom. Even as adults, I think we yearn for that feeling to hit us again come Memorial Day, come the start of summer. The first of these two stories that we'll be hearing interlaced throughout the hour is by Ron Carlson, a story of somebody on summer break from college. Ron Carlson is a writer who lives in Arizona.
In 1967, the year before the year that finally cracked the 20th century once and for all, I had as my summer job delivering medical oxygen in Phoenix, Arizona. I was a sophomore at the University of Montana in Missoula, but my parents lived in Phoenix and my father, as welding engineer, used his contacts to get me a job at Air and Oxygen Company. I started there doing what I called "dumbbell maintenance," the kind of make work that's assigned to college kids. I cleared debris from the back lot, mainly crushed packing crates.
These were good days for me. I was 19 years old, and this was the hardest work I had ever done. The days were stunning, starting hot and growing insistently hotter. My first week, two of the days had been 116. And in that first week, I learned what not to touch, where not to stand. And I found the powerhouse heat simply bracing. I lost some of the winter dormitory fat and could feel myself browning and getting into shape.
I was having a hard ride through the one relationship I had begun during the school year. Her name was Linda Enright, a classmate, and we had made the mistake of sleeping together that spring. Just once, but it wrecked absolutely everything. We were dreamy beforehand, the kind of couple who walked real close, bumping foreheads. We read each other's papers. I'm not making this up. We read poetry on the library lawn under a tree.
And then, one night in her dorm room, we went ahead with it, squirming out of our clothing on her hard bed. And we did something for about a minute that changed everything. After that, we weren't even the same people. She wasn't she, and I wasn't I. We were too young citizens in the wrong country. All I could remember from the incident itself was Linda stopping once and undoing my belt and saying, here, I'll get it.
The coolness of that practical phrase repeated in my mind after I'd said goodbye to Linda and she'd gone off to Boulder where her summer job was working in her parents' cookie shop. I called her every Sunday from a pay phone at an Exxon station on Indian School Road, and we'd fight. And if you asked me what we fought about, I couldn't tell you. We both felt misunderstood.
Ron Carlson. Let's start the second of the two stories we'll hear throughout this hour. This is a very different kind of summer adventure, one spent outside with nature. Scott Carrier, a frequent contributor to This American Life, decided to canoe down the Green River in Utah.
I have to confess a profound ignorance about what I'm doing. My preparation for this float trip consisted of buying a canoe and then grabbing a Wyoming road map from a rest stop on the drive up. I'd been in a canoe a couple of times, and I thought I knew how to make it turn and go straight. And I'd seen the river from several bridges I'd crossed on other trips in other years. And it was always wide and calm and flat. So I thought I could manage well enough.
I could have practiced with the canoe, gone out with someone who could show me the strokes. And I could have read up on the river, learned about what was in store for me. But I chose not to do these things. When you try to lay things out, try to control what's going to happen, you always end up disappointed or frustrated. At least I do. My first surprise has been that the river, at the top, was not calm and flat. There were rapids-- big rapids. I floated down and camped where I first heard the roar. It sounded like this.
[SOUND OF ROARING RIVER]
This sound was carried on the wind to my tent off and on through the night. And it rained with lightning and thunder. I got up with the sun, made some coffee, and prepared for the worst. I double- and triple- wrapped everything in garbage bags and tied it all into the canoe. And then I took off my clothes. It would be easier to swim naked. And if I was to drown, I wanted, for some reason, to drown naked.
I started down the river, praying for all the ants I'd ever stepped on, for all the bugs that had splattered into my windshield. I prayed for dirt and discarded things. I prayed for all my forgotten memories. And somehow, I made it. The canoe kept filling with water, but it stayed upright. And I got away with only a couple of welts on my shins.
Two weeks into the summer, I was drafted to drive one of the two medical oxygen trucks. One of the drivers had quit, and our foreman came out on the dock in the morning and told me to see Nadine, who ran medical, in her little office building out front. They had the truck loaded. Two groups of 10 medical-blue cylinders chain hitched into the front of the bed. These tanks were going to be in people's bedrooms.
I climbed in the truck and started it up, pulled onto McDowell, and headed for Sun City. At that time, Sun City was set alone in the desert, a weird theme park for retired white people. And from the beginning, it gave me an eerie feeling. The streets were like toy streets, narrow and clean, running in large circles. No cars, no garage doors open, and, of course, in the heat, no pedestrians.
These people had come here from the Midwest and the East. They had been doctors and professors and lawyers and wanted to live among their own kind. No one under 20 could reside in Sun City.
Mr. Rensdale was the first of my customers I ever saw in bed. I rang the bell and was met by a young woman in a long silk shirt, who saw me and said, "Oh, yeah. Come on in." I had the hot, blue cylinder on the single dolly and pulled it up the step and into the dark, cool space. I had my pocket rag and wiped the wheels as soon as she shut the door. I pointed down the hall. "Is it this way?"
"No, upstairs. First door on your right. He's awake, David." She said my name just the way you read names off shirts. Then she put her hand on my sleeve and said, "Who hit you?"
My old scar was still raw across my cheekbone. "I got burned."
"Cute," she said. "They're going to love that back at where?"
"University of Montana."
"University of what?" She said. "There's a university there?" She smiled. "I'm kidding. I'm a snob, but I'm kidding. What year are you?"
I'll be a junior, "I said."
"I'm a senior at Penn," she said.
I nodded, my mind whipping around for something clever. I didn't even know where Penn was. "Great," I said. I started up the stairs.
"Yeah," she said. "Great."
I drew the dolly up the carpeted stair carefully and entered the bedroom. It was dim in there, but I could see the other cylinder beside the bed and a man in the bed, awake. He was wearing pajamas and immediately upon seeing me said, "Good. Open the blinds, will you?"
"Sure thing," I said, and I went around the bed and turned the mini blind wand. The Arizona day fell into the room. The young woman I'd spoken to walked out to the pool beneath me. She took off her shirt and hung it on one of the chairs. Her breasts were white in the sunlight. She set out her magazine and drink by one of the lounges and lay face down in a shiny, green bikini bottom. I only looked for a second or less, but I could feel the image in my body.
While I was disconnecting the regulator from the old tank and setting up the new one, Mr. Rensdale introduced himself. He was a thin, handsome man, with dark hair and mustache. And he looked like about three or four of the actors I was seeing those nights in late movies after my parents went to bed. I liked him immediately.
"What field are you in?" I asked him. He seemed so absolutely worldly there, his wry eyes and his East Coast accent. And he seemed old the way people did then. But I realized now he wasn't 50.
"I, lad, am the owner of Rensdale Foundations, which my father founded." His whisper was rich with humor. "We make ladies undergarments. Lots of them."
The dolly was loaded and I was ready to go.
"Come after 4:00 next time if it's worth a martini to you, kid. And we'll do some career counseling."
He gave me a thin smile and I left. Letting myself out of the dark downstairs, I did an odd thing. I stood still in the house. I had talked to her right here. I saw her breasts again in the bright light. No one knew where I was.
The next house was an old block home gone to seed-- the lawn dirt, the shrubs dead, the windows brown with dust and cobwebs. I was fairly sure I had a wrong address and that the property was abandoned. I knocked on the greasy door, and after five minutes, a stooped, red-haired old man answered. This was Gil, and I have no idea how old he was that summer, but it was as old as you get. His skin, stretched tight and translucent on his gaunt body, was splattered with brown spots. On his hand, several had been picked raw.
I pulled my dolly into the house and was hit by the roiling smell of dog hair and urine. I didn't kneel to wipe the wheels.
"Right in here," the old man said, leading me back into the house toward a yellow light in the small kitchen where I could hear a radio chattering. He had his oxygen set up in the corner of the kitchen. It looked like he lived in the one room. There was a fur of fine, red dust on everything-- the range, the sink-- except half the kitchen table where he had his things arranged. I got busy changing out the tanks. Meanwhile, the old man sat down at the kitchen table and started talking.
"I'm Gil Benson," his speech began, "and I'm glad to see you, David. My lungs got burned in France in 1919, and it took them 20 years to buckle." He spoke, like so many of my customers, in a hoarse whisper. "I've lived all over the world, including the three As-- Africa, Australia, and Alaska. My favorite place was Montreal, Canada, because I was in love there and married the woman, had children. My least favorite place is right here because of this.
"One of my closest friends was Jack Kramer, the tennis player. That was many years ago. I've flown every plane made between the years 1928 and 1948. I don't fly anymore with all this." He indicated the oxygen equipment. "Sit down. Have a cookie."
I had my dolly ready. "I shouldn't, sir," I said. "I've got a schedule and better keep it."
"Grab that pitcher out of the fridge before you sit down. I made us some Kool-Aid. It's good."
I opened his refrigerator. Except for the Tupperware pitcher, it was empty. Nothing. I put the pitcher on the table. "I really have to go," I said. "I'll be late."
"Sit down," he said. "This is your last stop today. Have a snack."
So began my visits with the old Gil Benson. He was my last delivery every fourth day that summer. And as far as I could tell, I was the only one to visit his wretched house. On one occasion, I placed one of the Oreos he gave me on the corner of my chair as I left, and it was there next time when I returned. Our visits became little three-part dramas-- my arrival and the bustle of intrusion, the snack and his monologue, his hysteria and weeping. I had "I've got to go" all over my face, but he would never read it.
It always started with the story of long ago, an airplane, a homemade repair, an emergency landing, an odd coincidence, each part told with pride. But his voice would gradually change, slide into a kind of whine as he began an escalating series of complaints about his doctors, the insurance, his children, naming each of the four and relating their indifference, petty greed or cruelty.
I nodded through all of this. I've got to go. I'd slide my chair back and he'd grab my wrist. By then, I could understand his children pushing him away and moving out of state. I wanted out.
It's been easy floating the past couple of days. But the river winds back and forth in these big, long S-turns. And sometimes, I paddle maybe 10 miles to cover just one as the crow flies. Yesterday, at sunset, after a long, hot day, I pulled out and camped in a grassy field. I could see a ranch house about a mile in the distance. So the thought of being on private property did cross my mind. But like I say, the house was a mile away, and it was late.
This morning I unzipped the tent, and the grass was covered with frost. My shoes, which I had left outside, were frozen stiff. So I got up slowly and just laid around until 10:00 or 11:00 looking at the scenery. I saw moose and beaver, bald eagles, Sandhill cranes, and many little birds I don't know by name. There was a little one in the willows by the river, and it was bright orange and yellow, like a parakeet you might buy in a pet store.
So I was lying around thinking what a great place it was when a truck drove up and parked on a dirt road about a quarter mile away. And a man, a ranch foreman, Chuck Davis, came over to chew me out.
Mrs. Kellen called me up and asked me to come down and please ask you to leave, which I have. The Kellens make their living-- or the operation of this ranch comes from selling hay that you're laying on right now. The ground that you've knocked down this side of the river is irrigating right now. You can look out there just 10 feet away from you and there's water. They're irrigating this, trying to put this up as hay.
Do you have a lot of trouble with people trespassing?
Yes, we do, at specific times of the year. Hell, I'm a hunter and a fisherman, a sportsman. And I like to go, when I get the time, to hunt and fish myself. But these people have paid a specific amount of money, and it's a large amount of money. They pay a large amount of taxes every year on this ground. And it's their right to say who comes and who goes on that property.
Why do you have to come here? There's ground up there too for the public. From the Green River Lakes, there's millions and millions of acres of public ground, of national forest, of state ground. Why do you have to come on this specific piece of ground?
It looked nice. [LAUGHS]
Yeah, how long will it stay nice? How long will it continue to look nice if everybody comes down here-- and I'm not pointing a finger at you-- but if 10 people come through here and nine of them leave beer cans-- or even four of them-- every day, or build different fires and the fire ring is here, how long will this look nice? You've just got to draw the line somewhere.
I apologized for my trespass and was quickly back on the river, paddling through some of the most beautiful country I'd ever seen and keeping my eye on both banks, the two lines I wouldn't cross again until sometime after dark.
By mid-July, I had become tight and fit. I looked like a young boxer, and I tried not to think about anything. Backing up to the loading dock late on those days with a trunk of empties, I was full of animal happiness. And I moved with the measured deliberation the full day had given me. When I bent to the metal fountain beside the dock, gulping the water, I could feel it bloom on my back and my chest and come out along my hairline.
Around this time, a terrible thing happened in my phone correspondence with Linda Enright. We stopped fighting. We'd talk about her family. The cookie business was taking off, but her father wouldn't let her take the car. He was stingy. I told her about my deliveries, the heat.
As I listened to us talk, I stood and wondered, "Who are these people?" The other me wanted to interrupt to ask, "Hey, didn't we have sex? I mean, was that sexual intercourse? Isn't the world a little different for you now?" But I chatted with her. When the operator came on, I was crazy with Linda's indifference but unable to say anything but, "Take care. I'll call."
Meanwhile, the summer assumed a regularity that was nothing but comfort. I drove my routes. I was used to sitting with Gil Benson and hearing his stories, pocketing the Oreos secretly to throw them from the truck later. I was used to Elizabeth Rensdale showing me her white breasts, posturing by the pool whenever she knew I was upstairs with her father.
Driving the valley those long summer days, each window of the truck a furnace, listening to "Paperback Writer" and "Last Train to Clarksville," I delivered oxygen to the paralyzed and dying. And I felt so alive and on edge at every moment that I could've burst. I liked the truck, hopping up, unloading the hot cylinders at each address, and then driving to the next stop. I knew what I was doing and wanted no more.
Rain broke the summer. The second week in August, I woke to the first clouds in 90 days. They massed and thickened. And by the time I left Sun City, it had begun, a crashing downpour. I didn't want to be late at the Rensdales. I was wiping down the tank in the covered entry when Elizabeth opened the door and disappeared back into the dark house. I was wet from the warm rain, and coming into the air-conditioned house ran a chill along my sides. When my eyes adjusted and I started backing up the stairway with a new cylinder, I saw Elizabeth sitting on the couch in the den, her knees together up under her chin, watching me. She was looking right at me.
"This is the worst summer of my entire life," she said.
"Sorry?" I said, coming down a step, "What'd you say?"
"David, is that you?" Mr. Rensdale called from his room. His voice was a ghost. I liked him very much, and it had become clear over the summer that he was not going back to Pennsylvania.
Elizabeth Rensdale whispered across the room to me, "I don't want to be here." She closed her eyes and rocked her head. I stood the cylinder on the dolly and went over to her. I didn't like leaving it there on the carpet. She was sitting in her underpants on the couch.
"He's dying," she said to me.
"Oh," I said, trying to make it simply a placeholder, let her know I'd heard her. She put her face in her hands and lay over on the couch. I dropped to a knee, and putting my hand on her shoulder, I said, "What can I do?"
This was the secret side that I had suspected from this summer. Elizabeth Rensdale put her hand on mine and turned her face to mine so slowly that I felt my heart drop a gear, grinding now heavily uphill in my chest. Mr. Rensdale called my name again. Elizabeth's face on mine, so close and open, made it possible for me to move my hand around her back and pull her to me. It was like I knew what I was doing. I didn't take my eyes from hers when she rolled onto her back and guided me onto her.
I wish I could get this right here, but there was no chance. We stayed together for a moment afterward, and my eyes opened and focused. She was still looking at me, holding me. And her look was simply serious. Her father called, "David?" from upstairs again, and I realize he must have been calling steadily.
Mr. Rensdale lay white and twisted in the bed. He looked the way the dying look, his face parched and sunken, the mouth a dry orifice, his eyes little spots of water. I saw him acknowledge me with a withering look, more power than you'd think could rise from such a body. And I moved in the room deliberate with shame, avoiding his eyes.
He rolled his hand in a little flip toward the bed table and his glass of water. Who knows what happened in me then? Because I stood in the little bedroom with Mr. Rensdale, and then I just rolled the dolly and the expired tank out and down the stairs. I didn't go to him. I didn't hand him the glass of water. I burned. Who would ever know what I have done?
Sand Wash is way out in the Utah desert. You drive two and a half hours on a dirt road. And when you get there, it's a big canyon, a dry wash cutting down through shale stone badlands, and emptying into the Green River. The river at this point is slow and flat, the color of coffee with milk, and just about as warm.
If you stand by the river, you might see a Great Blue Heron, a pair of Golden Eagles, a beaver, an otter. The river is a thin, snake-like oasis. But if you turn away from the water and look back up at the cliffs and barren plateaus, you might think you're now living on a dry, god-forsaken planet. It's just the Utah desert, close to where Rubin Farr buried his cat. Close to nowhere.
This desert is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. They manage the grazing permits, and they give out 10,000 floating permits every year to people who want to make the six- or seven-day trip down through Desolation Canyon. There's a BLM ranger stationed there, where you put your boat in the water. Her name is Michelle Sturm. She's six feet tall and carries a clipboard. She checks your permit, checks your equipment-- first aid kit, extra paddles, life jacket. She jokes around, doesn't give you a hard time. And it's easy to see she's not from around here, that she's on some kind of leave of absence, hiding out in the wilderness.
I came off of working with homeless for two and a half years-- mentally ill adults and single males and hungry people and low income families in downtown San Jose, California, and was really just tired and not enough joy in my life. I wanted to be in the middle of nowhere. So the first night I was at Sand Wash, I really felt at home and comfortable, and this was the right place.
And the light and the wind-- the factors that are really important and have bearing on your life are real significant factors, things you have absolutely no control over. And you can write by the moon at night. At night, these loud-- I don't know what they are-- sort of airplane-type bugs. But I don't think they're dragonflies, but something else just comes zooming in and zooming by the bedroom window and checking things out. And the bats are really fun. They come really close.
And I hear boaters. And I hear people coming down the gravel road, and that's always a little apprehensive, as I don't know what they want.
Are you going to go back to working with homeless people?
I don't think so. I don't think so. I think you need to have a strong faith and religious belief to do that kind of work. And I think I tend to see it more as a political situation rather than a religious situation. And so it just really produces more anger than saintliness or something.
So you're angry.
What are you upset about? What bothers--
Well, the thing that bothers you is that you and everyone you're working with is doing as much as you possibly can. And yet, you can't do enough. And someone else has asked you for something else, and you can't do it. And you learn to have to say no.
That's a pretty dismal way to operate. You don't want to have to operate always feeling your boundaries, and if I just keep stretching and stretching, I'm going to break, and so I have to protect myself so I don't break. And then I let all these people down. You see?
What you see are shadows in the moonlight, the mouth of the canyon, the eerie shapes of red rock walls, the figure of a tall woman walking home to bed.
Scott Carrier on the Green River in Utah.
Coming up, finding a dead body and not finding one. In a minute, when our program continues.
Act Two. On The Green River.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's show, The Promise of Summer.
And rather than bring you a big bunch of stories this hour, we're interlacing two stories throughout the hour. One from Scott Carrier traveling down the Green River in Utah. One from Ron Carlson, a short story called "Oxygen" from his new book of stories, Hotel Eden. Before we get back to this story is a quick warning to listeners that Ron Carlson's story contains adult situations. No explicit language, but adult situations that might not be right for every listener.
So the last month of that summer, I began seeing Elisabeth Rensdale every day. I told my parents I was at the library because I wanted it to sound like a lie and have them know it was a lie. I came in after midnight. The library closed at 9:00.
Elizabeth and I were hardy and focused lovers. Knowing we had two hours, we used every minute of it, and we became experts at each other. We never went out for a Coke. We never took a break for a glass of water. We rarely spoke. There was admiration and curiosity in my touch and affection and gratitude in hers, or so I assumed. And I was pleased, even proud, at the time that there was so little need to speak.
Meanwhile, Gil Benson had begun clinging to me worse than ever, and those prolonged visits were full of agony and desperation. I had never had such a thing happen before. And until it did, I thought of myself as a compassionate person. I watch myself arrive at his terrible house and wheel the tank toward the door, and I search myself for compassion, the smallest shred of fellow feeling, kindness, affection, pity. But all I found was repulsion, impatience. Give me the truck keys and a job to do. I had no compassion for Gil Benson.
The Sunday before Labor Day, I didn't call Linda Enright. In each minute of the day, Linda Enright was in my mind. I saw her there in her green sweater by her father's rolltop. We always talked about what we were wearing, and she always said the green sweater, saying it innocently, as if wearing the sweater that I'd helped pull over her head that night was of little note, a coincidence, and not the most important thing that she'd say in the whole $8 call.
And I'd say, just Levi's and a t-shirt, hoping she'd imagine the belt, the buckle, the trouble it could all be in the dark. I saw her sitting in the afternoon shadow, maybe writing some notes in her calendar or reading, and right over there, the telephone. I could get up and hit the phone booth in less than 10 minutes and make that phone ring, have her reach for it. But I didn't. I'll let her sit there until the last sunlight rocked through the den, broke, and disappeared.
The last day of my job in the summer of 1967, I thought-- and this is the truth-- I thought for the first time of what I was going to say last to Elizabeth Rensdale. I tried to imagine it, and my imagination failed. When I climbed from her bed the nights I'd gone to her, it was just that-- climbing out, dressing, and crossing to the door. She didn't get up. This wasn't Casablanca or High Noon or Captain Blood. This was getting laid in a hot summer desert town by your father's oxygen delivery man. There was no way to make it anything else.
Some of my customers knew I was leaving and made kind remarks or shook my hand or had their wife hand me an envelope with a twenty in it. I smiled and nodded gratefully, and then turned, business-like, to the dolly and left. These were strange goodbyes because there was no question that we would ever see each other again. It had been a summer, and I had been their oxygen guy.
But there was more. I was young and they were ill. I stood in the bedroom doors in Sun City and said, take care. And I moved to the truck and felt something, but I couldn't even today tell you what it was. To the people who didn't know, who said, "See you next week, David," I didn't correct them. I said, "See you," and I left their homes too. It all had me on edge.
The rain moved in for the day, persistent and even, and the temperature stalled and hovered at about 100. I thought Gil would be pleased to see me so soon in the day. But I surprised him, knocking at the door for five full minutes before he unlocked it, looking scared. Though I had told him I would eventually be going back to college, I hadn't told him this was my last day.
There was no chatter right off the bat, no sitting down at the table. He just moved things out of the way as I wheeled the oxygen in and changed tanks. He stood to one side, leaning against the counter. When I finished, he made no move to keep me there, so I just kept going. At the front door, I said, "There you go. Good luck, Gil."
His name quickened him, and he came after me with short steps in his slippers. "Well, yes," he started as always. "I wouldn't need this stuff at all if I'd stayed out of the war." And he was off and cranking. But when I went outside, he followed me into the rain. "You've got to go," I told him. "It's wet out here."
His wet skin in the light looked raw, the spots on his forehead brown and liquid. Under his eyes, the skin was purple. I'd let him get too close to the truck, and he grabbed the door handle.
"I wasn't sick a day in my life," he said. "Ask my wife."
I put my hand on his on the door handle, and I knew I wasn't going to be able to pry it off without breaking it. Gil Benson pulled the truck door open and with surprising dexterity, he stepped up into the vehicle, sitting on all my paperwork. I looked at Gil, shrunken and purple in the darkness of the cab. He looked like the victim of a fire.
"Gil," I said. "I'm late." I looked at him, but he did not look at me. He sat still, his eyes timid, frightened, smug. It was an expression you use when you want someone to hit you. I started the truck, hoping that would scare him, but he did not move. His eyes were still floating, and it looked like he was grinning, but it wasn't a grin. I kicked my door open and jumped down into the red mud and went around the front of the truck.
When I opened his door, he did not turn or look at me, which was fine with me. I lifted Gil like a bride, and he clutched me, his face wet against my face. I carried him to the front door. He was light and bony like an old bird. And I was strong, and I felt strong, but I could tell this was an insult the old man didn't need. When I stood him there, he would not let go, his hands clasped around my neck. And I peeled his hands apart carefully, easily, and I folded them back toward him so he wouldn't snag me again.
"Goodbye, Gil," I said. He was an old man alone in the desert. He did not acknowledge me.
It happened in Desolation Canyon, a wilderness, a place of natural forces. But there was nothing about the river except a few easily negotiated rapids, nothing about the weather except a strong gust of wind at sunset, and nothing about the night, except the pulses of some distant heat lightning. There was nothing to explain the blue plastic ground cloth rolled around the body of a small, 16-year-old boy.
This plastic, set on the floor of a rubber raft, the raft pulled up on a beach below a dirt road where the airplane would land, the young friend of the boy asleep on the sand, bleached blond hair, necklace, smooth, tense skin. A child. This man, an instructor, who came to fly the body out of the canyon.
The boy who died was a 16-year-old student. And he died yesterday, on the seventh day of the course. He was discovered by a fellow student at his campsite at about 10:50 PM with no apparent pulse or breathing. And cardiopulmonary resuscitation was performed for 44 minutes.
As far as you know, the death didn't have anything to do with the river or being on the river.
I'm quite sure that wasn't the case.
Do you have any ideas of what was the cause?
At this point, no, I don't. I'm sure that the coroner's report will tell us what it was, but I can't say. I couldn't speculate.
What's it like? What's it-- I don't know how to ask that question, but what's it like when one of your students dies?
Traumatic, heartrending, for not only the instructors but fellow students. It's been a difficult 24 hours. It'll continue to be so.
You know, a river has its own space and time. Earth dissolves into water, water into air. And death is like a river. You stand next to it, and all the words fall out of your head.
I radioed Nadine that the rain had slowed me up, and I wouldn't make it back before 5:00.
"No problem, sonny boy," she said. "Over."
"I'll hit the Rensdales and on in. Over."
"Sonny boy," she said. "Just pick up there. Mr. Rensdale died yesterday. Remember the portable unit, OK? And good luck at school. Stop in if you're down for Christmas break. Over."
I waited a minute to over and out to Nadine while the news subsided in me. It was on Scottsdale Road at Camelback where I turned right. That corner will always be that radio call. "Copy. Over," I said.
In front of the Rensdale's townhouse, I felt odd going to the door with the empty dolly. I rang the bell, and after a moment, Elizabeth appeared. She was barefoot in jeans and a t-shirt, and she looked at me.
"I'm sorry about your father," I said. "This is tough."
She stared at me, and I held the gaze. "I mean it. I'm sorry."
She drifted back into the house. I pulled the dolly up the stairs to Mr. Rensdales room. It'd been taken apart a little bit, the bed stripped, our gear all standing in the corner. With Mr. Rensdale gone, you could see what the room was, just a little box in the desert.
"I'm going back Friday." Elizabeth had come into the room. "I guess I'm going back to school."
"Good," I said. I didn't know what I was saying. I started to say something else, but she pointed at me.
"Don't come. Just do what you do, but don't come to the funeral. You don't have to."
"I want to," I said. Her tone had hurt, made me mad. I walked to the bed and put my hands on her shoulders.
I bent and looked into her face.
I went to pull her toward me to kiss, and she leaned away sharply. "Don't, David." But I followed her over onto the bed, and though she squirmed tight as a knot, I held her beside me, adjusting her, drawing her back against me. About a minute later, she said, "What are you doing?"
"It's OK," I said.
Then she put her hand on my wrist, stopping it. "Don't," she said. "What are you doing?"
"Elizabeth," I said, kissing at her nape.
She rose to an elbow and looked at me, her face rock hard, unfamiliar. Our eyes were locked. "Is this what you came for?" She lay back and thumbed off her pants. "Is it?"
"Yes," I said. It was the truth, and there was pleasure in saying it.
"Then go ahead." She moved to the edge of the bed.
She didn't move when I pulled away, just lay there looking at me. I remember it as the moment in this life when I was farthest from any of my feelings. I gathered the empty cylinder and the portable gear with the strangest thought. It's going to take me 20 years to figure out who I am now.
I could feel Elizabeth Rensdale's hatred as I would feel it dozens of times a season for many years. It's a kind of dread for me that has become a rudder and kept me out of other troubles. The next year at school, I used it to treat Linda Enright correctly, as a gentleman, and keep my distance. I had the chance to win her back, and I did not take it.
I left for my junior year of college at Missoula three days later. The evening before my flight, my parents took me to dinner at a steakhouse on a mesa, a Western place where they cut your tie off if you wear one. My parents were proud of me, they said, working hard like this all summer away from my friends. I was changing, they said. And they could tell it was for the better.
Much, much later, I drove the dark streets. The radio played a steady rotation of exactly the same songs heard today on every 50,000 watt station in this country. Every fifth song was The Supremes. I knew where I was going. Beyond the bright, rough edge of the lights of Mesa, I drove until the pavement ended. And then I dropped onto the red clay roads and found Gil Benson's house.
I knocked and called for minutes. Out back, I kicked through the debris and weeds until I found one of the back bedroom windows unlocked. And I slid it open and climbed inside. In the stale heat, I knew immediately that the house was abandoned. I called Gil's name and picked my way carefully to the hall. The lights did not work.
I wasn't scared, but I was something else. Standing in that dark room where I had palmed old Oreos all summer long, I now had proof-- hard proof-- that I had lost Gil Benson. He hadn't made it back, and I couldn't wish him back.
At home, my suitcases were packed. Some big thing was closing down in me. I had spent the summer as someone else, someone I knew I didn't care for, and I would be glad when he left town. We would see each other from time to time, but I also knew he was no friend of mine. I eased along the empty roadways trying simply to gather what was left, to think. But it was like trying to fold a big blanket alone. I kept having to start over.
The sun is going down, and three families are camped beside a trout stream in southern Utah. The women are talking to each other by the picnic table. The men are watching the children play in the water. Two of the women are sisters. One has just had an affair with a man in Los Angeles. On the phone, she swore to her sister that she would tell her husband and insist on a divorce. But now, she's thinking she will not say anything ever about the affair and maybe wait a while on the divorce.
Her sister is swaying back and forth with a baby in her arms. This morning, the baby stuck her right hand in a cup of hot coffee and cried for hours. Now she's asleep, but her fingers have big, balloon-like blisters that will break and heal slowly, leaving long, white scars.
The third woman is two days pregnant and thinking about taking a nap. Of the men, one is trying to decide when would be the best time to drive into town and call his broker. One is thinking about running up the mountain to smoke a joint and watch the sun go down. The other is looking at the water wondering if the fish might like a grasshopper.
The children are playing and fighting over a toy sailboat. The three-year-old boy is soaking wet and nearly out of his mind with the possibilities. The five-year-old girl is standing on the bank, making up rules and shouting out orders and dropping lettuce and cheese from her sandwich. There are little birds in the trees and big birds on the rock walls of the canyon-- red rock walls in the shadow of the afternoon sun.
A dirt road comes around and down and crosses over the stream, and in the pool below the road, a pale snake slides silently into the water and swims to the other side, holding something rather large in its mouth. There are three cars, all white, and there's an Indian-- or rather, the ghost of an Indian who lived and died in this spot-- sitting cross-legged on the hood of the station wagon.
This is the beginning of a story. The story is about how the husband realizes his wife has been unfaithful. And it's about how the Indian died and what the snake had in its mouth and how the two-day-old life inside the mother grows and is born and becomes a beautiful young woman who paints the poems of Rilke on the desert blacktop highway. The sun is going down, and three families are camped beside a trout stream in southern Utah. This is the beginning of a story, but there isn't enough time to tell it.
Scott Carrier, and Ron Carlson before him.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.