NEW FICTION : UPSTREAM

That morning my Uncle Arlo Epps stalked out from the cabin buck naked and declared, "I'm a unsheathed soul!" Then he dove right into the Kern River and swam, angling kinda upstream to fight the current so that, whenever he finally turned directly into it, he just hung in that swift water, about halfway across, straight out from where I stood watching him.

"A unsheathed soul?" I asked myself.

He sure picked a terrible place to swim, the river right there, just below where Kern Canyon opened into the Southern Sierra, because that water it was snow melt straight from the high country, and it come down fast and freezing. Directly above where Uncle Arlo took to swimming, there was these rapids couldn't no boat get through and, at the canyon's mouth, this cataract was boiling.

At first I just stood there and watched him, stunned I guess. Once Uncle Arlo got turned into the current, though, and chugged into a rhythm that held him even with me--slipping back, then pulling forward again--I hollered at him, "Uncle Arlo! Uncle Arlo!"

"Leave the ol' fool alone," snapped my Aunt Mazie Bee leaning on the cabin's doorway. "He's just a-tryin' to attract attention." She disappeared back into the darkness, talking to herself.

Me, I spent most of that morning watching my uncle surge, slip back, then surge again, as he tried to hold even with the cabin. You know, I'd never even seen him naked before, let alone acting so crazy, so I didn't know what to do. A couple times I asked Aunt Mazie Bee if we shouldn't try to help him some way.

"Help him?" she finally huffed. "Arlo Epps is a growed man. He can just take care a hisself."

"But he might get drownded," I insisted.

"Hah!" was all she said.

I wasn't surprised at her acting so hateful toward him. They'd had an argument that morning as usual. I'd heard 'em rumbling at one another through the walls. It went on longer than most and I'd begun to wonder if there'd be any breakfast at all, then he'd jumped into the river. As a matter of fact, there wasn't no breakfast, but I never really noticed because I was so worried about Uncle Arlo.

Come midafternoon, me avoiding chores to watch him fight that current, still figuring him to collapse any second, I determined to rescue my uncle. Without asking permission, I pulled our boat, the Packard Prow Special, out from the shed and dragged her to the river's bank.

The Special was this old wooden dinghy that Uncle Arlo he'd took as pay for a dowsing job years before. She'd never looked too great but, in spite of her one-lung'd motor, my uncle'd been able to use her on that river without no trouble. What give the Special class, though, was that Packard hood ornament Uncle Arlo'd wired to her prow. He'd traded for it at this yard sale and he kept it all the time shined, something that really ate at Aunt Mazie Bee. She said it just showed how foolish he was.

Anyways, I launched the boat and managed to put it into position next to my uncle, that bright ornament pointed upstream toward the canyon. I leaned over to talk to him, and was I shocked by how he looked. He was so white. I'd always seen his arms from the elbow down, and his face, all real tan, but the rest of him--the part his clothes hid--was the color of a trout's belly, and it seemed like he shimmered in that clear water like some kinda ghost. It was scary. "Uncle Arlo," I finally called, "please come in. You'll get drownded for sure."

My uncle he just kept on cruising, his face out of the water every other stroke. His eyes they looked real big and white, but I couldn't tell if he recognized me. "Shall I bring you some dinner?" I yelled. "You gotta eat." He never answered, but those two-tone arms kept stretching, those white eyes turning.

Then he done something that surprised me. This fat stonefly it come bouncing down the water toward him. Just before it reached his face, he twisted his body and snatched the big insect into his mouth. "Crime-in-ently!" I gasped. I surely wasn't gonna mention that to Aunt Mazie Bee.

When I chugged the Packard Prow back to shore, I hurried to the cabin and faced down my aunt. "You gotta do something," I insisted. "Uncle Arlo'll get drownded for sure."

"He'll no such a thang," she snorted. "Arlo Epps won't act his age is what he won't. He jest wants attention, but what he needs is to brang in some money and stop his durn dreamin'."

"But Aunt Mazie Bee . . ."

"No buts! Now do yer chores!"

Well, I stayed up all night, or tried to--I reckon I mighta dozed some leaning against the Special there on the bank. Not much, though, 'cause in the moonlight I could see him out there, holding against the current, that white body flashing like a fishing lure, never still. Just about dawn, I snuck in the cabin and brewed some coffee, then filled the old thermos bottle. I knew my uncle had to be froze by then and I was determined to force some hot coffee down him. I carried it to the Special, then bucked the river's swirl out to Uncle Arlo and directed the boat right next to him. He didn't pay me no mind. "You gotta drink some coffee," I urged. "Uncle Arlo, pleeease." He kept pulling against that rushing water, nipping at the morning's hatch of mayflies. I finally give up.

That afternoon a reporter and a photographer from the Bakersfield newspaper showed up. My aunt'd called them. "I thought you wasn't gonna give Uncle Arlo no attention," I hissed to her out the corner of my mouth.

"Hesh up," she snapped, "or I'll peench a chunk outta you. Besides, I'm not a-givin' him the kind he wants, I'll tell you that much. We gotta live some way, don't we?"

That reporter he was a stout gent that chewed on a unlit cigar. His partner was a little weasel lugging his big, giant camera and with a fat bag hanging from one shoulder.

After my aunt got done telling her story, that reporter just closed his notebook and put his stub pencil away. "Lady," he said real rough, "you must think we were born yesterday. Nobody could do what you claim your old man's done. We weren't born yesterday, right, Earl?"

"Right," agreed the photographer.

"Ask the boy," replied Aunt Mazie Bee, unwilling to back down.

The reporter wiggled his wet cigar at her, then he turned to face me. "Well, boy?" he demanded.

I looked at the ground. "It's true. Honest."

We was standing on the river's bank, maybe a hundred feet from where Uncle Arlo worked against the current. The reporter he stared at that pale form that the rushing water made look like a torpedo, then he asked, "What's that guy wearing?"

I looked at my aunt and she looked at me. "Well, he left in a big hurry," she finally said.

"Yeah, but what's he wearing?"

"Nothin'," she choked.

"Nothing? You mean he's bare-assed?"

"Yeah," I gulped, and my aunt she looked away.

"For Chrissake, Earl, get a picture of that nut!"

"Right," said the photographer.

"What'd you say his name was?" asked the reporter, and Aunt Mazie Bee she smiled.

The story with a picture was in that next day's paper, and the crowds begun arriving before lunch. My aunt was ready for 'em.

She stationed herself at the gate in a warped wooden lawn chair we'd salvaged years before from the river. She also had me set up our old card table--that we got cheap at a yard sale--and she put on it a cigar box to hold all the money she planned to collect, plus a empty soup can to spit snuff juice into. Across her lap she laid our old single-shot .410 that Uncle Arlo'd swapped for way back when. Finally, she tied on her good sunbonnet and waited. "Ever'body pays, buster," she told the first arrival. "That'll be two bits." Then she shot a stream into the can-- Ptui! --and give me a I-told-you-so grin.

What a buncha jokers turned out. While my uncle was struggling in that water, pickups and jalopies and hot rods sped to the fence and out spilled the darndest specimens I ever seen: mostly young studs with more tattoos per square mile than the state pen. All colors and shapes, sucking on toothpicks and sleeves rolled up, gals parading in bathing suits and shorts, giggling and pointing while boyfriends scowled at each other.

"Hell, I could swim 'er easy," claimed one old boy that had a pack of cigarettes rolled into a sleeve of his T-shirt, and the crowd cheered. A minute later he was into a fight with another guy that had his sleeves rolled up too, and the crowd surged and tugged for a minute, then cheered some more.

Aunt Mazie Bee hardly seemed to notice the goings-on. She sat counting quarters and filling that spit can. Once she called, "No rock-throwin', buster," and she gestured with her scatter-gun. The old boy quit flinging stones at Uncle Arlo right now.

A little later, after she'd sold a couple old tires for a dollar and this beat-up bike seat for thirty cents, a great big potbellied devil without no shirt on swaggered up to the doorway of our cabin, but my aunt never blinked: "Nothin' fer sale in there, buster, but you about to buy this .410 shell." She clicked back the hammer, and he lost interest in the cabin real quick. A hour later she sold the lawn chair to a Mexican man for seventy-five cents and took to accepting bids on the card table. I never liked the way she took to eyeing the Packard Prow Special.

It was about dark, the crowd finally drifting off, when that Cadillac swooped up to the gate. Out of the driver's seat come this big, tough-looking guy in a suit and tie that went and opened a back door. A short, fat guy--in a suit and tie but with a hat too--he squeezed out. The two of them they paid my aunt--by now she was sitting on a nail keg--then they trooped through what was left of the picnickers and beer drinkers, the crowd kinda opening and staring real quiet as them two passed because they looked like they'd showed up at the wrong place.

On the point closest to Uncle Arlo, they stood for a long time, not talking to one another that I could see, their eyes on them two-tone arms, on that two-tone head and on that ghost of a body in the current. Finally, the fat man called to my aunt in this high-pitched voice: "Lady, you got a boat we can use?"

Aunt Mazie Bee's eyes narrowed. "Fer what?"

"For five bucks."

He was speaking my aunt's language, so even before she answered I was trudging to the Special. I knew I'd be ferrying the fat guy. There wasn't room for three, so only me and the fat guy we chugged out, the current jerking and pushing us around till I got that hood ornament pointed upstream and we moved toward Uncle Arlo. That big shot he clung to the boat's sides tight as he could, and I was half-tempted to dump us both just to keep him away from my uncle because there was something real rank about him.

When we finally arrived alongside Uncle Arlo, the fat guy he raised one hand, signaling me to stop, then grabbed the boat's sides again right now. He watched the swimmer for a long time, then rasped to me, "How long you say he's been at it, boy?"

"Two days nearly."

"Two days without stopping?"

"Uh-huh."

"Take me back," he ordered. "I seen enough."

Soon as we hit shore, the fat man and his pal joined Aunt Mazie Bee in the cabin after she give me the .410 along with orders to make sure nobody got in without paying and not to take less than twenty cents for the nail keg. She carried the cigar box with her.

Half an hour later, my aunt walked the fat man and his pal to that Cad, shook hands, then come back to the gate as they drove away. "Well, I sold him," she announced, her hands on her hips, her chin out, grinning.

"Huh?"

"Your uncle. I sold him to that there Mr. Rattocazano of Wide World Shows. Your uncle's a-gonna be famous and we're a-gonna be rich, " she told me real proud.

"But you can't sell Uncle Arlo," I protested. "You can't do that!"

"I can so!" she asserted. "Besides, I never exactly sold him, I jest sold that Mr. Rattocazano the right to exhibit him. Course, we gotta git him declared crazy first, but Mr. Rattocazano says his lawyer'll take care a that in no time. They'll brang him and the sher'ff out tomorra."

"The sher'ff?"

"To declare Arlo Epps nuts and take him. He's been crazier'n a bedbug for years. Now he can finally support us."

"But Aunt Mazie Bee . . ." I complained.

"Jest hesh!" she snapped. "This here's growed-up's business."

Tired as I was, I couldn't sleep that night for worrying about my uncle that never hurt a soul being declared nuts and took to the nuthouse or stuck in some kinda freak show. No sir, was all I could think, not to my uncle you don't. It seemed to me like Aunt Mazie Bee was the one gone crazy.

Before dawn I crept out to the Packard Prow Special and hit the river. Soon as the engine coughed me out alongside Uncle Arlo--him not looking any different than he had that first morning, arms reaching for the water in front of him, head turning regular to breathe--I hollered at him, hoping the river's growl would cover my voice. "You gotta come back, Uncle Arlo," I pleaded. "The sher'ff's gonna come and take you away. They say you've went nuts." His movements never changed, so I added, "I brung a towel."

His face kept turning, his arms pulling, but I noticed his eyes roll in my direction: He seen me. We seen each other. A real look. So I told him again: "You gotta come in. The sher'ff's coming today, and a lawyer too. They'll take you to the nuthouse or the sideshow, one." I extended that towel.

His body just shimmered in the hurried water, and his arms kept up their rhythm, but the look on his face changed. Then, sure as anything, he winked at me. That was when I noticed that the Special was gradually falling behind him. I thought for a second that the sick old motor was giving up but, no, it sounded the same as always. Then I realized he was moving upstream, real slow but moving, toward the rapids and that cataract.

I opened the throttle of the Special and caught Uncle Arlo, but not for long. We was getting close to those rapids, and he was moving faster all the time. Them two-tone arms they was churning faster, and his two-tone face hardly seemed to be sucking air as he dug in. The Special was wide-open but it was lagging farther and farther behind, so I throttled back the engine to hold even in the current, not wanting to get into the rapids.

Up ahead, I sighted my uncle slide into them, kinda bounce but keep swimming, around curling whirlpools, up swooshing runs, over hidden boulders, not believing what I was seeing with my own eyes, until pretty soon he reached the boiling edge of that cataract. I couldn't hardly breathe.

For what seemed like a long, long time he disappeared in the white water and I was scared he'd finally drownded. Then I seen this pale shape shoot up outta the water, looking less like a man at that distance than some fair fish. The current it drove him back, but a second later he come outta that froth again, farther this time, almost over the worst of it, but not quite, and he fell back into that terrible foam. I figured him a goner for sure, and I squeezed my eyes closed, not wanting to see what happened. A second later, I couldn't resist squinting 'em open. "Come on, Uncle Arlo," I heard myself rooting, "make it!"

Then he exploded, a ghost that popped from the cataract like . . . well, almost like a unsheathed soul, smack into the smooth water above. I couldn't believe it, but I cheered, "Yaaaay!"--my heart pumping like sixty. Whenever I rubbed my eyes and shook my head, he was stroking up there outta sight into the canyon.

I plopped in the wiggling Special, breathing real heavy, and I wiped my own face with the towel I'd brung for Uncle Arlo. He was away and I was exhausted, so I pointed the Packard Prow toward the bank. Whenever I got to shore, Aunt Mazie Bee come out from the cabin. "Where's your uncle at?" she demanded, her eyes searching the river.

"He drownded," I replied.

She glanced from me to the stream and back, made a clucking sound with her mouth, then said, "He would. "

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