Kind of quiet tonight, so here’s a longish one from Swamp Ghosts. (Thought I’d show you that I do know how to write scenes that aren’t totally weird and disturbing.) Gunnar Wolfe is a wildlife photographer who has hired Maggie Devlin to guide him into some pretty inaccessible backwater areas, in search of rare birds and animals. He’s never set foot in a canoe before, and denies he’s afraid of boats, but he admits he does not want to end up in that black, black water. This is his first canoe lesson with Maggie, who was raised on the river, and knows it like the back of her hand. So far, she’s less than impressed with Gunn, immense size and Norwegian good looks notwithstanding.
SUNDAY MORNING arrived looking like a picture out of a travel brochure. A buttery yellow sun beamed down from a cloudless swath of blue sky, and the trees along the river were that jewel-like shade of green you only see in early summer. I watched Gunn as he surveyed the boat launch. “You sure you don’t want to do a dry run on land first?”
“Maggie, I’d feel silly standing over there under a tree, getting in and out of the canoe, instead of just launching it here, like anyone else. I’m sure I can do this.”
“Okay, Thor. Your funeral,” I muttered.
Gunn’s eyes widened. “Excuse me? Thor? Did you just call me Thor?”
I looked up from the cooler I was arranging in the stern of the canoe in order to offset his weight in the front. “Oh, please don’t tell me I’m the only one to ever call you that.”
He was put out. More so than I expected, though to be honest, I had been trying to get a rise out of him. His perpetual good humor was getting on my nerves this early in the morning.
“Actually, you are.” Now he had a definite scowl on his face.
“You’re kidding, right? I mean, look at you.”
He was growing redder, and his smile was ancient history, now. Hmmm. This was a different, and unexpected, side to Gunnar Wolfe.
“I beg your pardon? Look at me? What are you talking about?”
“Gunn, for Pete’s sake. You look just like the guy. You know? The guy from the Avenger movies?”
His mouth dropped open in astonishment, as though such a thought had never crossed his mind. “I don’t look like that guy!”
“Yes, you do. Exactly.”
“I do not!”
“Oh my God, Maggie. Just because we are both blond…”
“And…big…doesn’t mean we look alike!”
He stomped back to the truck to get our floating seat cushions and paddles, muttering to himself every step of the way. Damn. I may have been trying to needle him a bit, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so successful.
We carried the canoe down to the area designated for launching smaller craft, and I pushed it nose first into the water, leaving the stern on the sand. I could tell he was still annoyed with me, but I figured it would be best to just ignore it.
“Watch how I do this.” I stepped into the canoe. “You have to be sure your feet are in the dead center, one right behind the other. You want to bend at the waist and hold onto the gunwaling—this aluminum edge around the top of the canoe—with each hand. Then you carefully walk forward bent like this, but remember to keep holding on for balance. Step over each thwart—these braces here—then step over the bow seat, and sit down. Once you’re sitting, I’ll push the canoe out, and we’ll talk about paddling. Remember, don’t let go of the gunwaling while you’re walking. Oh, and be careful to keep your feet centered directly over the keel. That’s this indentation right here that runs down the middle of the canoe.”
I straightened up, turning to get out and realized Gunn had that look on his face. You know… the one guys get when they are staring at your butt and don’t think you will catch them? But then you do, and they get this stupid, wide-eyed look of fake innocence that makes you want to smack them with a two by four? Yeah. That look.
“If you’re finished gawking, you can try it for yourself.” I really wanted to say a lot more, but figured I had ticked him off enough already, so I probably owed him a pass this time.
Gunn walked forward, his good nature returning, though I wasn’t sure whether that was because he had gotten away with a free look, or because he was getting into the whole idea of going for his first canoe trip.
With exaggerated care, he stepped into my sixteen-foot fiberglass canoe, bent to place each hand on the gunwaling, just as I showed him, and started for the bow, while I steadied the stern. As he moved over the part that was floating in the shallow water, the canoe dipped under his weight, and his next step came down far to the left of the keel, tilting the canoe sharply. He immediately let go and tried to stand up, nearly flipping the whole thing over. I threw all my weight on the stern, steadying the shaky craft, and he somehow managed to regain his balance. He leaned forward again, oh so carefully, and placed his hands back on the gunwaling. At a snail’s pace, he inched the rest of the way down the canoe, stepped over the seat, and sat down.
I let him catch his breath for a second. “You can let go now, but please sit completely still while I push us off.” With his weight being carried by the water under the bow, it was no problem to lift the stern a little and push it forward, stepping into the canoe at the last minute as it moved out over the deeper water. I took my own seat, grabbed my paddle, and pushed us away from the launch area.
“Okay, Gunn. You did fine. You can paddle on your left side now.”
He didn’t answer, but he released his death grip on the sides of the canoe and picked up his paddle. He dipped it into the water and pulled. The canoe immediately slewed to his right.
“Not so hard. Just paddle slow and steady on that side for a few moments. I’ll tell you when to switch.”
He continued to paddle as though we were racing for the gold, making it difficult for me to steer. I’m pretty strong, and I’ve been canoeing all my life, but damn, this guy had a set of shoulders on him like nothing I’d ever seen before, and he was pulling at the water with Herculean strength.
“Hey! Slow down up there. I can’t control our direction if you pull that hard.”
Not a sound from Gunn. No difference in the way he was attacking the water, either. We had already slipped out onto the river proper, and were headed towards the outer pier of the marina, where the boats were waiting for fuel. If he didn’t slow down, we’d ram something, for sure.
“Gunn? Are you listening to me? Ease up.”
His back was rigid and his strokes were robotic. Not afraid of boats, indeed! What I needed was to distract him for a minute—get his mind off what we were doing.
“Hey, Thor! Don’t make me come up there!”
He froze, then spun toward me, half rising out of his seat. Uh-oh. Danger, Will Robinson!
“No! Don’t get up, you idiot!”
Too late. The canoe tilted sharply, and the big jerk went right over the side with a splash like Shamu, trying to soak the first ten rows in the stadium. The craft righted itself, and I turned it slightly away from where he went in, and began looking for him. Surely he could swim. Couldn’t he? I couldn’t remember if we’d actually addressed that issue, and he probably wouldn’t have volunteered the information if he couldn’t, especially since he believed he wouldn’t be falling in.
Just as I was thinking I might have to jump in after him, he popped up, spluttering and gasping. A loud round of applause went up from the folks on the pier and in the boats waiting alongside. A lot of laughing and cheering, and good-natured jokes, too, which he ignored as he dog-paddled his way to the side of the canoe and held on.
I waited for the explosion, but he was quiet as he studied the situation, and then looked at me, perplexed. “How do I get back in without turning it over?”
“We didn’t get to that part of the lesson, yet, since it has to be done in the water. Do you want to try it now, or do you want to hang on while I paddle us back to shallow water, so you can wade to shore?”
He studied the onlookers who were waiting to see what he would do.
“You paddle, I’ll swim.” He headed back to the launch area on his own.
I let him go, figuring he didn’t want to be seen as needing my help to get to shore. I followed, maneuvering the canoe easily enough. When you’ve been doing it all your life, you can get along just as well alone as with a partner. By the time I beached the canoe, Gunn was sitting at a picnic table under the nearest tree, probably embarrassed and miserable.
He was facing away from me and the folks over on the pier, which I’m sure was what he intended. I hesitated a moment, wondering if I should approach him yet. I’m sure he thought this was all my fault. He might have been right.
As I watched, he pulled his t-shirt off and began to wring it out. I stopped in my tracks. Oh, my. What a sight to behold! Even his muscles had muscles, and they rippled and rolled with his every move. I stood staring for a moment, utterly mesmerized, and then realized my mouth was hanging open. There may have been drool. He pulled the wet t-shirt back on, and I could breathe again.
I gave myself a mental smack on the head, and tried resetting the blown fuses in my brain. This guy probably spent every spare minute working out at the gym. Shallow. Yeah, I told myself, he was no doubt just as superficial as my original assessment of him had suggested. But as I headed toward him, I had a sinking feeling it would be a long time before I forgot the sight of that bare back and those shoulders.
Rounding the table, I sat down across from him, and waited for his reaction.
He cleared his throat. “Water’s deep there.”
“Has to be for the boats to get to the fuel pumps.”
“It’s just as black as I thought it would be.”
“Tannic acid. You can see through it where it’s shallow.”
He looked down at the table for a moment, then looked back at me as though wondering what I thought of him.
“You’ve been initiated now.” I was fighting a grin. “Maybe we could get on with our lesson?”
He watched the folks on the pier disperse, going about their business now that the show was over.
“I suppose they see stuff like that all the time?”
“Yep. All the time.”
“Do they always laugh and holler like that?”
“No. Sometimes it’s much worse. Sometimes they sing songs about the hapless person for days afterward. Now and then there are pictures to post inside the Crab Shack, if anyone has their camera or phone at hand.”
I was still fighting the desire to laugh, and he knew it. “I suppose this is pretty funny to you?”
I nodded, barely able to hold back.
He thought for another moment, then to my surprise, he began to laugh. Softly at first, and then full-on. That was all it took for me. I lost it, too. The more I looked at him with his blond curls plastered to his face and patches of duckweed stuck to him here and there, the funnier it got. I sat there across the table from him, and laughed harder than I have in years.
“Do you want to try again?” I asked when I caught my breath.
He answered without hesitation. “Of course. I may not have wanted to go into that water, but I did. I survived. And I’m damn well not going to let something like that stop me from doing what I set out to do.”
Twenty minutes later, we were canoeing along the shoreline, heading for the entrance to a smaller creek, which offered no access for larger boats. Gunn was more relaxed, and paddling at a rate I could match easily. This was starting to look promising, and before I knew what was happening, I was enjoying myself.