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In college, Carmen charmed Ray with her stories of boating on the Rideau Canal. Of side trips on bicycles with her parents, of forest strolls and picnics on canal banks while waiting for the locks to open, of ice cream from stops at small towns with names Ray had never heard of. His own childhood memories were of extremes: the damp of San Francisco nine months of the year, then the ticking summer heat of his grandfather’s alfalfa farm in the Central Valley, his parents’ idea of summer camp. It was no wonder Ray thought Carmen was exotic, even though she was only French Canadian.
They honeymooned in Canada on a canal boat and puttered on the Rideau through the waterway’s endless rivers, lakes, and locks. Carmen found her memories to be evergreen. Ray had no idea there was so much forest and pastoral farmland north of the border. She explained that it had all been logged multiple times over, but the forests looked virgin to Ray. He’d expected tundra, not oak and ash, birch and white spruce, and definitely not swamps of cedar and cattail. It was a revelation.
“We should live here,” he said, but she warned him of the winters. So they remained in San Francisco where he had a job in healthcare administration. Carmen taught music in the public schools and fulfilled her dream of living in a large city free of ice and snow.
The plan was to work hard, raise a family, then retire early. Carmen took time off when their daughter was born, and they managed for a while, but then came mergers and the recession, with unemployment gobbling up their early retirement funds. There followed a string of uninspiring jobs for both of them, ever-shorter vacations, and the matrimonial malaise of middle age in which Ray lost his naiveté and Carmen lost, as a result, her exotic aura.
But then the internet nested in San Francisco, and their property value doubled, tripled, and tripled once more. They cashed out before people regained their senses. Tired of the damp, they bought an auctioned house in New Mexico for nearly nothing. It looked like a meth house, but there was a huge Quonset hut beside it with A/C and heat and, inside, improbably, an old narrowboat that had once plied the Erie Canal as a pleasure craft. It had ended up here through a providence that was uncertain to the realtor, but involved multiple homeowners. The boat looked like it was from the 1800s, but it was only fifty years old, Ray’s age.
They spent twice as much on refurbishing the narrowboat as on the property. The engine was rebuilt, all-new electrical installed, a new cartridge toilet added, and the cabinetry was refinished. It was cozy. Wood paneling and lace curtains over the portholes. A nook for books and another for spirits.
Their daughter Jenn finished college and, not finding work, moved back in with them, which Ray rather liked—though he knew the middle of nowhere, New Mexico, was no place for a woman to squander her youth.
That winter was the wettest on record. Water seeped in under the door and soaked the carpets. Mildew dappled the ceilings of the house, just like it had in San Francisco, and the moisture sealed the windows shut. They stored most of their things in the boat to keep them dry.
They were awakened one night by the sound of a flash flood. Ray, Carmen and Jenn were headed to the car when they saw the water coming. They just made it into the Quonset hut as the steel hull was pelted by the clinking, hissing stones moving in the flood. Water spurted in at the inside edges of the Quonset as though from the blowhole of whales.
They spent a sleepless night in the canal boat, then felt it gently rock. They were afloat. Standing on the roof of the canal boat, Ray was able to reach the manual pull for the hut’s large door—and just in time. The hut lifted from its mooring and slid out from around them with scarcely a scrape, the only damage being to the boat’s stove pipe. The revealed sky was the color of dirt, water falling in heavy curtains. Ray changed into dry clothes in the narrowboat while Jenn and Carmen dabbed towels at places that hadn’t been sealed: several portholes and the base of the door leading out to the stern.
They floated toward the hills, but the hills were submerged by the time they reached them, along with all the surrounding land. Ray put on his slicker and boots and went out. He started the engine and manned the rudder, setting a course north-east for the 1,700-mile journey to Lake Ontario. He had never felt more alive. They arrived in time for summer, with provisions to spare.
This is the way Ray prefers to imagine their return to the Rideau Canal. Not the decade-long route, the one where the house needed endless repairs after the mild flash flood; the one where Carmen contracted a mysterious fever that ravaged her optic nerves and left her irrecoverably blind; the one where he had prostate cancer that, though in remission, keeps no promises. Definitely not the one with the canal boat still in the Quonset hut, too far gone from dry rot to have ever been worth saving.
Still, it could have been worse. He could have been one of the thousand men who lost their lives building the Rideau waterway in the early 1800s, most of them victims of mosquito-borne malaria. Lives sacrificed for the creation of a safe passage for goods that would otherwise be open to possible American attack along the St. Lawrence. He, a young man of twenty, might have felt a little bite there on his calf, and scratched at it absently. The land would have seemed an ugly, harsh wilderness after ten fevered and exhausting hours a day with a pick and barrow. And then he’d have died.
Ray is thankful they are finally on the Rideau Canal again, even if it is in this modern rented boat for the week: he and Carmen and Jenn and Jenn’s boyfriend Marty who vapes entirely too much for Ray’s liking. Jenn could do better, or perhaps not.
This section of the waterway, where it is river, is uncommonly pretty. As they approach a bridge and a cluster of stores, Ray moors the boat. He comes back with three ice creams and a cookie for the lactose-intolerant Marty. The ice cream is already melting in the summer heat. He guides the cone with double chocolate into Carmen’s hands and passes out the other treats.
“This isn’t a peanut butter cookie, is it?” Marty asks.
“Marty’s allergic to peanuts,” Jenn says.
“I’m not sure,” Ray says. He hands his cone to Marty to hold, then unwraps the cookie from its cellophane, breaks off a piece and tries a bite. “I’m afraid so,” he says. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem,” Marty says, and puffs out a minty cumulous cloud.
Ray can sense that the man-boy is disappointed, this unemployed philosophy PhD candidate who has a beard like a prospector’s and whose interest in the turtles of the Rideau exceeds what Ray considers healthy in anyone who isn’t a herpetologist. So far, Marty’s spotted a Common Map Turtle, a Midland Painted Turtle, and is hoping to see a Stinkpot, though he says it’s unlikely. The only good thing about engaging Marty on the subject of obscure turtles is that it prevents Marty from talking about obscure philosophers.
Ray eats the rest of Marty’s ordinary peanut-free sugar cookie, then returns to his ice cream cone. He starts up the engine and they move away from the bank and back into what feels like a current of good fortune. A bit of luck’s been such a long time coming, Ray thought he was forgotten.
Over the next few hours, Ray and Jenn spot a loon, herons, grebes, terns, even a kingfisher—all birds he remembers from when Jenn had taken an interest in birding in middle school and was convinced she’d spotted an extinct messenger pigeon. Those birds in San Francisco hadn’t warned him about his coming run of bad luck, and when he and Carmen moved to New Mexico, the species didn’t even show. Here on the Rideau, the birds ply through the cattails, or dive, or simply float without concern, with feathers immune to floods.
Ray pretends he owns the boat and that Carmen, behind her sunglasses, can see the blue sky and the little wisps of hot-weather clouds. He wishes that the Rideau continued forever, its locks lifting them again and again so that they are all (even Marty) allowed to putter forward on calm, unending waters.