Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How the river spit up my dogs and a few other things.

I can see the Mad River from my bedroom window. Not so much in the late spring or early summer when the trees are full and tall and reaching out every way they can. But, in the winter, I can see how it glistens and moves (fat and fast when the snow melts). I've seen it so full it spills over or twirls in circles around downed branches or gushes into the park so that the picnic tables float like rowboats.

My river has four sister rivers that are all deeper, stronger, faster, angrier. About a hundred years ago all those sisters got together and drank and drank and drank. They sucked so much rain out of the sky that they forgot which places they belonged to. They swallowed and swelled and swept over their shores and ate up so many river banks that they forgot to stop. They kept going and washed up over streets onto doorsteps and into living rooms and kitchens.

That hundred-year-old flood left brown lines of stain on the outsides of houses and store fronts in the old part of the city--my dad calls them "brag lines"--"Look at me! Look-how-high-I-can-go lines!" The rivers played so hard for so long that they chased people up into the attics, stuck them on their roofs, filled up their homes, their hearts, their mouths until entire sections of town were so buried in swirly mud water that they couldn't see or breathe or beg for the rivers to stop.

My dad says I'm the best brag-line spotter he's ever met. We take drives--just me and him--around town and catalog the houses that still show their flood scars. Dad says people have brag lines too. The ones on people are harder to spot with your eyes, but you can sense them. Some are ugly. Some smart. Some beautiful and some nearly altogether invisible. Dad says I've got an instinct for knowing people. For knowing when they are good or bad or just plain mean. It's nice that he says this, but he is showing his own brag line since he is the one who taught me to watch and see when people are too proud or not proud enough. Dad says, "I'll brag about you forever! Until I die and you die and we both die again. You can't stop me." (This is a brag-line I guess you'd call pretty great even if it is embarrassing.)

My river feeds a lake that rushes into a dam. The river comes out the other side bigger and wider and faster. A different river but still mine. In the spring, after a bunch of rain and then no rain and then too much rain again, the lake floods and floods and floods and the dam has to work its hardest to keep everything in its place. The water stays in the park, away from its sisters, and this is when it brings me the most gifts: rotted park benches, beach balls, plastic grocery bags, fence posts, truck tires and bike tires, unidentifiable wildlife that swells up with flies, plastic buckets, coke cans, and my dogs.

We assumed the dogs belonged to families upriver who were missing them something awful. “After all,” my dad declared, “dogs don’t naturally come out of rivers.” This confused me since I was way little and had seen for myself the dogs wash down river to the lake and then climb to shore. I knew for fact that dogs did come from the river, but I also like my daddy to think I understand him so I didn't ask any questions. It only took a few weeks (okay months) before I realized that he meant that the dogs belonged to someone. They weren't born in the river. They weren't tadpoles or catfish or green puffs of algae. They were dogs who had washed down into the lake to swim to the edges and stand on a high dry patch and then climb the big hill to my front door.

We tried returning the dogs. We’d go door to door but no one would claim these still-wet animals. Even when the dog had tags or we found a dogless house with suspicious raw hide bits and a leany dog house in the yard, the homeowner’s would shake their heads “no”. Dad, who doesn't like dogs much at all, said that they'd discovered the glory of no dog drool, no dog hair, no muddy dog footprints, and no vet bills. No need to lug heavy bags of food home from the grocery. No barking. No licking of faces with tongues.

I'm the opposite of my dad when it comes to dogs. I love the smell of dog breath—humid and murky like lake water. I love their hot dog bodies snuggled next to mine. I love the way they tilt their heads when they want to understand me and thump their tails on the bed in the morning to wake me up. Most of all, I love the way they love me. That's one of my brag-lines showing.

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