The Paddle-boat Sonata (Sweaty Duane continued)

Duane stopped the car right at the gates to a state park in Alabama. It was late and the gate was closed. He backed up and pulled into a parking lot, there were no other cars. Fourteen hours south of Chicago Duane drove, creeping down U.S. 41 in a straight line. June found the park on a AAA map and guided them towards this pullout off the road where Duane put the Impala in park and slumped over the wheel, unable to release it. June gently tugged him down across the front seat and covered him with an acrylic Pittsburgh Steelers blanket he packed in their haste. She got out of the car and walked into the tree line to pee.

The air was soggy damp and chilly, but nothing like the cold left behind in Indiana, where summer was still 2 months away. The dome light came on yellowy and dim when she opened the back door, but Duane was unconscious and wheezing into the frayed polyester seat cover. She stretched out on her stomach across the back seat and pulled Duane’s uncle’s mildewed army coat off the floorboard wrapping it around her body she drifted off wondering if Alabama was an Indian name, or an abbreviation of a phrase, “I’ll be back ma?” or “All ‘bout me?” It occurred to June this was only the second state she had ever slept in, and she wondered how many more she might fall asleep in before she got back to Indiana, if indeed she ever did.

Duane woke to the sun piercing the trees through the windshield and onto the side of his drool-covered jowls. He had to rock a few times to get momentum to pull his heft upright to peer into the back seat and see if she was still there, a habit he began that first night she came back to his Uncle’s apartment. He felt the same bemused thrill to see her now, that he felt that first morning, and then dread quickly rushed in as he remembered returning home from the clinic job to find her gone.

The morning calm broke as a squawking timbre echoed from somewhere below causing June to roll over and wrinkle the small worry lines between her eyebrows, but she did not awake, or if awake, she did not rise. Duane took the keys from the ignition so the dinging would not disturb June and he scooched out the passenger-side door feet first. They were above a lake, hundreds of feet below their turnout, and the noise was coming from a white-shirted person with a red hat and a loudspeaker. It was too far away to make out any words, but Duane opened a warm Mountain Dew from the trunk and sat on the granite wall to watch. The trees rolled up on all sides from the lake, in what Duane thought of as Thanksgiving colors, and the road they were on twisted through them until it disappeared into the creased folds of the valley.

Dozens of people, all dressed in the same white shirts and red hats and kerchiefs were lining up in pairs down the length of the dock while the squawker continued the monotone staccato of instructions which blasted from a tower of speakers above a boathouse. June’s shadow, cast by the early rising sun, fell across Duane’s shoulders and she said, “What’s going on?” Without turning around, Duane just pointed to the dock, aligned with little pastel boats on both sides like Jordan almonds placed in a compulsive row by a wedding guest, “I guess it’s a camp?” He offered the can of soda to her, and she took a sip to swish out her mouth before swallowing it down and joining him on the wall to watch.

In pairs the people, who they now assumed were children, loaded into the little square boats and began to push away from the dock and assemble in a bobbing order with a little chuff–chuff of frothy white behind them, “Paddleboats.” Said June. “Like the Lincoln Park Lagoon.” Duane knew what she was talking about, but he passionately avoided all water activities beyond the privacy of a shower. Just the thought of taking his shirt off in public or a t-shirt clinging to his back fat and under his blubbery pecs caused him to go awash in sweat, thereby manifesting his worst fear as he sat there. June did not notice and continued on, as though he didn’t understand, “You pedal them.”

With all campers deployed, the fleet broke into two ranks which rapidly chugged in opposite directions. The water stilled. The squawker fell silent. In this pause, Duane squinted at June his hand blocking the sun in salute, “Thanks for covering me up last night, it got cold, but I wish you’d kept the blanket for yourself.” June shrugged her shoulders, and smiled invisibly to Duane from her shadow. “What is an Alabama?” she said, and then rising up from the lake, came music.

Tinny with static came notes from a piano as the paddle-boats chugged from both directions back towards the dock with purpose. Perfectly spaced apart, each boat fell in rank until they appeared on a course to collide back at the dock. As the two lead boats closed, one yellow as a baby chick, the other chalky red, they veered slightly in opposite directions and the rest, Duane and June watched in wonder. The opposing rows arced in symmetry, lacing between each other in a plait of frothy green wakes never touching or colliding, but easing through each other to the building notes of now a violin, and a harpsichord, joining the piano. As the last boats executed their pass the lead boats were already hundreds of yards out from the dock and beginning to turn in, spiraling the long rows of boats into two churning pinwheels.

Coiled tightly, they paused, as did the music, before a new measure began, a cello, and the two columns of pedalers became one mixed confusion of paddling before the distinct image of a giant treble clef emerged from their efforts and with the last note of a climbing arpeggio, all boats came to rest in stillness and silence.

The sound of cheers and applause broke out from the campers, and rising to their feet Duane and June joined them, June yelling out “bravo! bravo!” so loud the red hat with the loudspeaker craned back towards them, looking above a concrete dam to wave a vague thank you, removing his cap to reveal his bald head as he bowed.

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