Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2023    poetry    all issues


Joel Filipe

B. Rosenberg
My Red Hot Cape Cod Summer

John Mort
Heart and Soul

Zoe Leonard
No Way Out But Down

Dustin Stamper
The Failure

Dan Winterson
Sit and Watch

Evan Manning
You, Me, Tomorrow and the Day Before

Brian Barrientez II

Vincent J. Masterson
Directions to the Shellback

Brandon Forinash
The Incredible Expanding Man

Corinne Tai
Eight Years

Pia Baur
Make Way for Ducklings

Craig Vander Hart
September Money

Alex Barr
Lentil Loaf and Spinach Salad

Craig Vander Hart

September Money

I regret it now, I really do, but it’s not like I could have known the significance of my shoulder pain at the time. There had been greater hardships. My line of work isn’t always kind to the body. The bigger issue was the Baptist kid, but he was fine, as far as I could tell, and it ended up being an otherwise uneventful float. I need only continue to explain because there were different points of view.

We were working on the Tieton River and everything of value I owned was parked or pitched along its bank, away from the road’s muddy ruts. Two weeks in and things were starting to decay, sag, smell, rust, rip, and vanish—that’s the rafting business alright, river guides included.

The night before it all happened, I was bushwhacking through the vegetation hunting for bits of used toilet paper to bag. Even river rats like us have standards. I saw one of the newer guides sitting down by the river and noticed that he didn’t have a bag full of flakes of paper and shit on his person the way I did, and it may have bothered my ego. Here I was, probably older than his father, forty years of guiding under my belt—not to mention the fact that I was Haag’s right-hand man and had been with the company since its beginning.

I walked over and said, “Hey, Jim.”

He smiled wryly and said, “It’s Jake.”

For a split second I thought he was trying to trick me into having a senior moment, but my instincts were wrong (could be a problem). There was no reason the little punk couldn’t have handled it all better. I felt sure that I was the one in the right. New guides are supposed to handle matters related to privies, and here I was doing his job. The name thing was secondary.

When the beach was sanitized, no thanks to new guy Jake, I decided to hang out with Lisa and help get things ready for the toga party. Okay, the name itself is a bit deceptive. Togas are no longer required. One year some asshole left their toga back in West Seattle and now our tradition has been totally ruined. Is nothing sacred? Apparently not. Whatever—I forgot my toga anyway.

I was hoping Lisa could really help me make a statement with my costume. She carried all the necessities: glitter, face paint, a unicorn mask, even a stormtrooper helmet. I planned on borrowing her multicolored trike too—who would miss me on that? Yep, I was alive alright, and not even broke, if one can bring up such crass financial matters. Let me say though—most professional raft guides (and I would be cautious about throwing that word professional around too seriously) have what Kerouac called “lint pocket” savings accounts. Or, since toilet paper seems to be on my mind, I could analogize the raft guide wallet to a naked toilet paper roll.

I, to the contrary, really sock it away. The secret is stocking up on all the unperishable or heavily preserved items at little diners and fast-food joints. Namely, the ketchups and mustards, the saltine crackers, all the napkins one needs and whatnot. I could go weeks with just free crackers and a jar of peanut butter for lunch, sometimes courtesy of the dumpsters outside the grocery stores. Helping oneself to a neighbor’s beer cooler works wonders too.

I was to be quitting the dumpsters though on account of my shoulder (it all goes back to this little hang-up). The pain became noticeable when I was working on one of our vehicles, an old mail truck that came into our hands like a gift for the automobile undertaker. Most of our rigs are half-rusted and barely clinging to life, and they are not even as old as I am. It’s a sobering thought—I’m now closer to seventy than to sixty—and nothing about me is usually all that sober.

That night was not supposed to turn into my last rodeo. Everything was as normal as normal could be for free-loading whitewater carnies. Haag had his dinner out: a box of cold fried chicken and two Rainiers. He offered one to me and it would have been rude to say no, but I should not have had one. There is nothing worse than the aftertaste of Rainier, and you must believe me that I do not say that out of snobbery. In fact, you would have to drive back across the mountains to find a functioning snob. As for me, I had a sixpack of Olympia on hand, and I kept it securely hidden for the time being because Jim Jake and his buddies had started moving in on our little seating area. They appeared to be empty-handed in the beer department, but they did bring a guitar.

He was hanging around, I’m sure, to try to pick up more work with our company. The occasional shift wasn’t good enough. He had not impressed me, and I had concluded that, objectively speaking, he was not fit to be a permanent member of our team. I thought I could see a hunger in his eyes as he sat with face illuminated by our fire. More than any other temptation, I knew the look well. He was hungry for the elusive September money that can only be scored on the reservoir fed Tieton when most other rivers around here have run out of juice.

Somehow that new guy (Jim? Jake?—I kept forgetting) discovered my little secret about my bad shoulder. He must have noticed how awkward it was for me to pick up even a can of my precious Oly. I recall reaching for the beer with my right hand and then stopping and switching hands. The whole thing probably looked so damn embarrassing, and he had to comment.

“What’s wrong with your shoulder, Big Chill?” he asked.

His use of my river name bugged me as well. There are rules about these things, which rest on our own kind of implied social contract. For instance, one rule is that guides cannot create their own river name. I was christened “Big Chill Will” back in the late 70s, which implies a certain lassitude in the recipient, but the laziness was all in the act of naming (was it Haag? I don’t remember, but I’ll let him use it). Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t like strangers calling me by my river name. It’s not one of our rules, but I think it’s a solid candidate.

Jim Jake stopped playing his guitar, as if to emphasize the fact that he had asked me a question and was still waiting for an answer.

“Just taking care of my health,” I said as I stood back up, unnerved a little by his insolence.

Things were really falling apart here. The old social contract was breaking down. When that happens, there’s reversion to lower complexity, and to hard and fixed rules of nature: predator and prey, fight and flight, war of all against all—Okay, I might be exaggerating.

“That’s your right shoulder, ain’t it,” Haag said, not letting me off the hook.

“Your eyes are still working, boss,” I said, and that shut everyone up.

Haag had neglected the fire, and in its fragile state it started to wither and fade. A coolness set in between us until Haag saw my disgruntled face. As I made small talk with Lisa by the stove, we heard the decisive snap of hatchet meeting wood.

After fueling the fire, Haag changed the tone of things.

“Tomorrow is a double. First float is a youth group. Some Baptist church. Three boats. Second shift, uh, we got three separate families.”

“How young are the churchies?” asked Carter, whose river name is Tweety, and I don’t remember the backstory on that one.

“Young teens mostly. Twelve, thirteen-ish.”


“What’s the order?” Lisa asked, talking over me.

“I want Tweety on point,” Haag said. Then he paused and dramatically stared at my shoulder. “Then Big Chill,” he continued, “Then you, Lisa, as sweep.”

We all knew why he delivered it like this. The weakest guide always goes in the middle. I normally would not have cared (hell, with three solid guides we rotated the order all the time), but he had to make a big deal out of staring at my shoulder. Deep in that little rational Jiminy Cricket part of my brain, I knew he made the right call. I wanted to believe that this had nothing to do with that usurper Jake hanging around more and more, but we dirtbag Bodhisattvas see connections in the universe that others miss. I have eyes of the soul—selfish eyes, but I was working on that.

My thoughts were eventually disturbed by the centrifugal forces launching us into an unplanned party—a penultimate party perhaps—indistinguishable, basically, from just another night in fact. As darkness took us into the void of night, the scene became carnivalesque. More guides started pouring into our camp from up the road. There were private boaters too, some I knew, but there were newcomers as well. These river rats must have heard we always had extra beer. I tried to remain aloof from most of them, but I couldn’t resist putting on a little show for some of the ladies by constantly stretching my shoulder. When I saw them take notice, I exaggerated a wincing look.

“You should try cupping,” one of them said.

Too old to flirt? I presented a mischievous face anyway, and they giggled.

In the morning, Lisa divided up the youth group paddlers while Haag and I set up the shuttle vehicle. She placed the youth pastor in my crew, along with four distracted young teenagers. The pastor was the lone adult going on the river today, and she had given him to me. It was another message: they didn’t have faith in me. I made the most of it. I placed him in the front and on the opposite side of me. I always guided from the rear right. This balancing of adult weight and strength would make life a little easier. I tried to train them quickly, and that meant inculcating Socratic ignorance. When it comes to rivers, the attainment of wisdom demands one first be teachable, which is a virtue often in short supply.

“What happens if someone falls in?” I asked.

“Jump in after them,” said one of the kids.

“That would double the number of people in need,” I said firmly.

The pastor cracked a smile. He wasn’t too talkative though. Maybe he was here because he drew some kind of short straw. I studied him carefully. His smart glasses told me that he had higher ambitions, that he wanted respect in his little corner of the universe. He wasn’t the first church leader to sit in my boat. I had taken several. They were all similar in dress and in trying to act so much younger than their age.

“You might lose those,” I said, pointing to his trendy glasses and ball cap.

We had been practicing in a deep eddy right offshore.

“Show me what you should do when I say ‘forward’.”

They started to smack the water with their paddles. Blades cut in haphazardly. It was all out of rhythm. It was all so predictable.

“Try to get in sync. You two in the front.” I was talking to the pastor and the biggest kid. “Try to mirror each other’s movements. Lean forward together, paddle in, pull back with your whole body.”

They tried again. “Better,” I said. The kids behind them were oblivious to the system.

“Keep those blades straight up and down.”

If I could just train the pastor and his neighbor, then I might not have to use my shoulder at all. A lazy guide can easily use the crew to steer the boat as well as to motor it (and I had a medical excuse for laziness). Simply call one side to paddle and not the other. Younger guides are often too cocky to use the crew; they want to steer it themselves with muscular draw and pry strokes. But I had to be careful. I had to look like I was guiding normally but keep the pressure off my body. We can’t have people getting paid without working—not in this country!

Okay, we were off.

There is something devious about the way in which the unleashed September water conceals the sharp basalt rocks; vicious, ruthless, jagged, all under the surface of that happy water, lapping sound off its back. It was almost unnatural that they should be hidden in this way. Technological humanity had made the river a machine. We made it flow for our own purposes: agricultural, recreational, whatever.

I had foolishly allowed us to drift toward a grassy island between the channels, where the water was even shallower. There were a few small basalt rocks submerged off its shore. With one small and avoidable bump, one of the Baptist kids tumbled into the river and was flushed away down the wrong channel.

His was the middle channel, the shortest of the three. It was too narrow for our boat, and logs were strewn merely two or so feet above its ripples. Due to inequities of length, he beat us to the deep pool before the diversion dam by about fifteen seconds. Lisa saw all of it, and had blown her whistle even before I did, though I saw little use in doing so since recovery of the swimmer would fall on me, there being no other alternative as Carter had likely already dropped over it. And it was loud anyway. More importantly, my crew was oblivious to the danger ahead. They excitedly shouted and pointed, though we lost sight of him as we took the longer, L-shaped channel to the left.

To our right, the Baptist kid wasn’t looking so good on his straight and narrow path. He was frozen stiff with limbs stretched out like a starfish. When we set on reconciliation, with boat fixed in the right ferry angle, he finally turned over and began thrashing toward us. I put them to work paddling, aiming to cut him off before the drop. I had the time to rotate my body so that I could grab him with my left arm, but I didn’t. I used my right. Decades of guiding produces habits that are not easily changed, and the pain when I tore the rotator cuff in my bad shoulder taught me how foolish that was.

The pain took me into my own little world, and for a moment I forgot about the kid, who was now possibly on his way to Jesus. His friends, likely confused by why I let him go, acted for themselves, though they were laughing as they helped him in. They were all, including the pastor, likely ignorant of what rivers can do. They had never seen a rafter pinned against a bridge pillar or pushed into a nest of logs and tree branches, a strainer we call it; no, they had never seen what I had.

We dropped over the dam awkwardly, but without further drama.

“What would have happened if we didn’t help?” one asked.

The pastor didn’t want to look ignorant. “It was a very low dam,” he said, deepening his voice to sound authoritative. “Not all that bad, I think.” He looked back at me for affirmation.

The need to conceal my pain kept me from condescending to point out that the opposite was true, that low overhead dams were deadly—far deadlier than a higher, say twenty-foot drop into a nice deep pool.

In an hour it was all over. We loaded them into our moribund bus. The pastor saw me debriefing with Lisa and Carter by the river’s edge. He knew what we were discussing and came over and tried to assure us that there would be no complaint on his end. I was almost moved by his little speech, and I committed right then and there in my head to say a prayer for him some day, that God might give him a raise, or seven children, or better sermon illustrations.

He left us with a joke. “You know, we Baptists have a thing for water.”

Scratch that, I would pray for better jokes.

Well, we all tried to laugh, but Carter and Lisa looked confused. Probably both unchurched. At least I was raised better. Was it not I who had studied for one year at Berkeley? But intellectually I fell short when it came to preparing to answer to the boss, and I do not mean God. My boss was not a spirit in the sky, but a truly corporeal (and some might say corpulent) being. The analogy is not, however, completely meretricious. Like our omniscient, foreknowing heavenly father, Haag would somehow know what I had done without having to ask.

We had worked together for so long, Lisa, Carter, and I. Over ten years. Everything was predictable until now. Lisa gave Haag all the details; her hands were moving the way a preacher or professor would talk. Her face was as expressionless as always. She pointed at me, and Jake looked my way and then turned back when he saw me staring at him. Haag left his seat at the table and came to where I was standing by the river, a few yards from the inner circle of chairs around the firepit. It almost looked like he was smiling too.

“Maybe you should take a seat,” he said.

I climbed inside the extra raft that was fully parked on the beach by the put-in. Sitting down on the front thwart with my legs tightly together and back erect, I must have looked like a petulant schoolboy to him. Waiting for my lesson, my head began to sag forward. Haag was still standing there as I waited, baffled, searching for a smoke that was supposed to be in the front pocket of his plaid flannel shirt. He furrowed his brow and kept tapping around his body with his thick pallid hands.

“Oh, the hell with it.”

His tone hinted of both anger and exhaustion, but his smile would return at times as if he had forgotten the point of the lecture.

“Finding it hard to remember things these days boss?”

The insulting question was delivered simultaneously with my left arm raised, mockingly academic, trying to give my insolence an air of legitimacy, as if a slur had been uttered in a formal tone or with an upper-class accent. The effect was a sudden return of memory for Haag and a sanctimonious ring to his voice.

“You know, someone could have gotten hurt out there because of you.”

I did not know why he needed to say what we both already knew. I hated to see him this way probably as much as he hated to see me in my state. I waved his line of thought away with my left hand. Haag gingerly established himself on the outer chamber of the raft.

“I know this is hard for you to hear, Will, but—”

Hold on a second. I had been waiting for enlightenment my whole damn life thinking it was going to come from some raft goddess appearing to me in a hallucinogenic vision one night. It would be all misty and effervescent and she would be floating across the river surrounded by shining white birds and those big yellow smiling faces from Walmart commercials bouncing everywhere.

She would say, “Will, you have lived a just and good life. The dirtbag is the unsung hero of the universe. You have granted immeasurable whitewater pleasures in exchange for survival money. Go now and be blessed—”

Would this ever happen? No, my enlightenment was to come because of Jimmy Jakester and my fate sealed by Buddha-bellied Haag. No golden woman. No river goddess. No strip tease—just a goddamn punk guide putting the final nail in my jerry-rigged old ego.

Haag was still talking, but I was no longer listening. I was in my own private confessional. That damn September money! I didn’t want all of it—just a little tea-spoon slice. I wanted to set myself and my truck camper up nicely down in Tucson for the winter and not have to live on condiments and dumpster treasures. A man my age is getting a little too old to be digging around in those things. I’m eligible for Medicare for crying out loud, but nothing scares me more than handing my body over to the government to be cared for—watching the controlled demolition of the Kingdome in Seattle was a wake-up call.

Yeah, I saw how government solutions can really get explosive for useless old clingers like me and the dome. Hell, it wasn’t even all that old, though the way the Mariners found a way to lose all those years it felt about as old as the goddamn Roman Coliseum. What do we do with you? Okay, boom. Yeah, I saw where this was going, but I’m not paranoid or nothing—I’m enlightened now. At this point of my explanation, Haag would probably point out all those years of exposure to desert sun and synthesized compounds. Is that relevant? Like I said, there were different points of view.

The ugly, uninduced reality was that without September money there would be no Tucson. I would be holing up in the Northwest, somewhere like Darrington, where boaters and rafters are known commodities and the weather is mild (if you can handle the rain and the dampness and the early nights couped up in the back of your truck). My entire way of life would be in crisis. After all, a river guide dirtbag has nothing else to do during the winter but run around on the rocks of the Southwest and wait for the mountain snow to become liquid.

To make matters worse, Haag’s tone made me think that he wasn’t talking just about no more September money. He was talking about no more money money, that is, no more guiding, which means earlier than planned retirement for me. I don’t know what I would do. Here I am able-bodied, mostly, and still so young, and I thought I would be guiding into my seventies until nature told me no more, and it would all work itself out naturally. Or, maybe I would be swept out of my boat and croak doing what I loved.

I tuned back in right before Haag pronounced my final judgment. “Fortunately, we have someone who can cover your next shift. I’ve been thinking about bringing Jake on full time next year. He’s always been patient and willing to help us.”

Without a word Jake picked up his bag and guide paddle and walked back toward the van. His normally desultory stride had been replaced with a walk of confidence, as if a lawyer had announced his name at the reading of a family will and he was collecting his inheritance.

If I was to walk away from all this a better man, I would have to start by wishing that young punk all the luck. Haag gave my back a tap.

“Forty-four years on the river is enough, don’t you think, Will?”

“Forty-five,” I said.

That’s it—I was just Will now, Big Chill no more, and I had to decide how to react. Without thinking I shouted Jake down. “Hey, we still haven’t given you a proper river name.”

Jake walked a little towards me, letting his drybag rest on our nice toilet-paper free beach and said, “I didn’t think you liked me enough to offer one.”

Perceptive little punk, alright. “You know, I always wanted to call you ‘New Guy’.”

“I’ve been working for five years now,” he said. “Got anything better?”

I thought silently for a moment and wondered if I had anything of value from which to use to send this kid off properly, and then I remembered the incident with my shoulder and the beer. Not just any beer—Olympia beer.

“How about Oly?” I shouted.

“Oly like the beer you love?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, tightening my face in anticipation of his rejection.

Jake put his guide paddle up in the air. “Hell yeah.”

Craig Vander Hart grew up near Seattle and is an avid explorer of the natural beauty of his home state. He teaches philosophy at Wenatchee Valley College in Wenatchee, WA, and occasionally works as a whitewater raft guide.

Dotted Line