By Katrina Hays
The asshole in the front of my raft has told us all ten times how he almost made it as a walk-on with the Raiders. He has referenced his giggling wife’s double-Ds at least six times, and as far as I can tell, his buddy sitting up next to him has the unfortunate moniker You Puss, which Asshole bellows when You Puss objects to getting smashed in the face with the end of Asshole’s paddle, or when You Puss actually clips his PFD tight around his torso, as requested by the river guide who, in this case, is a 23-year-old on her first paid trip, desperate to get on the summer payroll as more than a shuttle driver.
Asshole is bored with this flat section of river—he wants whitewater, not this baby crapwater. I am too green to distract him with a joke, and the other rafts in our group are too far away to wage water war. I’m on my own with my little group of voyagers, taken hostage by the manic mouth of a man whose IQ matches his sandal size. Pointing out that the calm stretch we’re on is a precursor to Satan’s Cesspool—a Class III rapid that should satisfy his every urge for macho mayhem, his need to pit himself against a river he does not even begin to comprehend as greater than he is—has the effect of galvanizing Asshole to stroke mightily forward, his acne-scarred shoulders rippling as he attempts to drag a 16-foot raft carrying seven people faster towards the good part, faster to the fun. Faster—as if the raft and the river are a carnival ride, as if there is nothing on this stretch of the American that could hurt anybody, as if the river could be turned off should the day skew sideways.
I let him whale away, let him sweat and strain while I guide the raft by holding my bigger paddle angled against his jagged thrusting. I hope he will burn out his mouth. I hope he will burst a blood vessel. Frankly, I’m so distracted by visions of his death that when You Puss says, Is that a snake? and I see the sinuous S-turns flashing across the blue-gray face of the river, I do not yank my raft back or spin it neatly upstream to counteract Asshole’s blind downstream ambitions. When he sneers, You Puss—snakes can’t swim, he is therefore perfectly positioned to stick out his ape arm (made longer by the attachment of a Carlisle paddle) and poke at the slashing S in the river.
And as easily as if the paddle-hand-arm were a handy drainpipe perfect for climbing, the five-foot Western Diamondback swarms up and out of the water, over the shocked shoulder of Asshole, to drop with a heavy plop into the bottom of my raft.
There is a silence.
A silence so vast it holds whole galaxies; a universe complete with suns, moons, dwarf stars, supernovas, black holes.
A silence into which every river in every world ever created in the whole history of God could be emptied.
A silence where I wish I actually had gotten that pony for Christmas when I was a kid, and that pony loved me, and I became a cowboy and never rowed any raft down any river, ever.
Then Well-Endowed Wife screams, and in perfect unison all six of my charges jump into the river 100 yards above Satan’s Cesspool, leaving me with a rattlesnake and a quandary:
Jump in myself, or
Fling the snake back into the water with the guests, or
Pull over, dump out the snake and watch from shore while my people flush down the rapid.
I choose Option A.
Leaping from my raft, I remove my guide’s knife from its sheath on my PFD, and head straight, not (as you might imagine) for Asshole, nor even for You Puss, but rather for Well-Endowed Wife, because I figure her huge tits are the best and most reliable flotation devices available and should carry us both safely through the rapid.
As I stroke past, I see that Asshole’s unfastened life jacket has ripped off his too-toned torso when he hit the water. He swims the rapid with nothing supporting his lead weight, is sucked down to hell and gone, damn near dies, gets aphasia from oxygen deprivation, and is currently confined to a home where the only competitive sport he’s allowed to play is pick-up-sticks.
You Puss is plucked from the river just above the rapid by another guide, with whom he instantly falls in love, marries, and divorces in one short year. The other two guests make it through just fine, and I go down in American River history as the only first-day guide to catch a snake in her raft, lose every one of her guests out of her boat, save the life of a river accident victim by performing chest compressions while swimming Satan’s Cesspool, end up with her photo in the Sacramento Bee, get famous and fired in the same day, and never work as a raft guide again.
Or maybe everything turns out fine in a different and much more boring way, and I actually end up guiding on a whole bunch of rivers over the years and never even think about any of this until we’re driving across the States one summer in a car with no air conditioning, looking for Paul Bunyan, Babe the Blue Ox, Bigfoot, and Calamity Jane, and our kids lean forward from the back seat and ask me and my spouse how we met.