Runner-Up Fiction

White Bend A white-hot July day in White Bend, West Virginia. Never heard of the place? Neither had I, until I did my first paddle on the Tuxedo River. You put in at Cushman on Maryland’s western edge. Plough the waves, float the flats, and take out about ten miles downstream at a map spot called White Bend.

Being that it was midsummer, the river was less wild than I’d seen it in March, the last time we did this trip. After unloading the canoe and our gear, we parked Dan’s car at the Cushman post office and got out on the river. A heavy band of storms had pummeled western Maryland the day before, so the whitewater kept us busy. We shouted through the rowdy waves that doused us as we ran The Backbone and Twister. And when we hit flatwater, we threw ourselves overboard and floated drowsily in the noonday sun.

When we reached the little sandy beach at White Bend, we were a good tired and all kinds of sunburned. We pulled the canoe out, overturned it in a shady spot next to the road and chained it to a tree. Then we sat down on it to wait.

For a car. For any car to take us to the main road, where we would thumb a ride back to Cushman. That’s how it works in the paddling world: you put in upriver, take out downriver, and cross your fingers that some kind soul will bring you back to your car. Then you retrieve your canoe and head home happy.

So we sat on the canoe and waited. Three o’clock came and went; then four. It should be pointed out that White Bend was a nearly invisible hamlet of 52 souls back in 1977, when this adventure took place. And the dirt road that runs along the river is devoid of houses, at least where we were sitting. So it was a long wait.

The hum of crickets usually relaxes me, but by 4:15 they had settled into a peevish drone. The white road shimmered in the late-day heat. Dan told jokes to pass the time, but I was as peevish as the crickets and wouldn’t crack a smile.

We heard the car long before we saw it—its muffler was that shot--and the squeak of springs at every pothole. Finally it rounded a bend in a cloud of dust: an ancient Ford Fairlane, more rust than paint.

It swayed and lurched like a drunk. Dan jumped up and held out his hand to stop it; the car nearly ran him over as it pulled off the road. The driver’s door opened slowly, and a lanky fellow with a ponytail and a bandanna headband climbed out. In the passenger seat, staring at me with alarmed eyes, was a tiny girl with tufts of hair like sunshine.

Dan greeted the driver, who wobbled as he leaned on his open door.

“Hey man. Any chance you could give us a lift out to the state road?”

The driver attempted to focus his eyes on Dan. He smiled and blinked. His words were slow, deliberate, and nearly unintelligible.

“Sure man. Me and my little girl are goin’ that way. I’m takin’ her to her momma’s.” He gestured toward the mite in the front seat and whacked his hand on the door frame.

“Dammit!” He kicked at the tire, staggered, and caught his balance. He grinned at Dan. “You two can ride in the back seat.”

Dan looked over at me, then back at the driver. “How ‘bout I drive. Would that be okay?” He said it easily, with a smile.

The driver shrugged and nodded. “Sissy, you get in the back now with the nice lady.”

I opened the rear door for her, and she slid in. I climbed in next to her. The floor was ankle-deep in Pabst cans. I gave her a brave smile. “Hey Sissy, I’m Kate,” I said. She did not respond. The driver edged his way around the front of the car. He paused to pee, then sank into the passenger seat with a soft burp. He handed the keys to Dan. The car belched, then caught, and we roared slowly down the road.

Sissy stared straight ahead. A tear rolled down her cheek. I reached over to pat her knee, but she pulled away. Her father snored gently. Dan caught my glance in the rear view mirror. “Okay?” he mouthed. I tilted my head toward Sissy and nodded.

When we reached the turn-off to the main road, Dan brought the car to a shuddering stop. He and I climbed out. Sissy remained in the back seat while her father dozed up front.

“See you,” I said to Sissy. She said nothing. Dan walked over to the passenger door.

“Hey man, thanks for the ride.” He said it loudly as he jangled the keys. The driver opened his eyes.

“Huh? What the f— Gimme those!” He snatched the keys from Dan and gingerly edged himself over to the steering wheel. He fumbled until he found the ignition. It appeared that he had forgotten his small passenger, for he never once looked to see where she was. She sat in the back seat and turned to stare at us as her father swerved out into the flow of traffic.

Her fearful blue eyes follow me still.