June 3, 2016

Essay by Jeremy DaCruz: "The Econlockhatchee River"

I am a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida with a degree in Psychology. I am currently living in Managua, Nicaragua working at a community center for people with disabilities. My days are divided between working at the disabilities center, writing and exploring the beautiful complicated country that is Nicaragua. My work has been published in Mountain Xpress and The Drunken Odyssey.

The Econlockhatchee River

An unbearably hot summer in Orlando, the temperature upper 90s. It was my first time back since I moved to Asheville, NC and I was there to see my old friend, Ben.
We drank some strong drink, then idly considered how to best occupy the rest of our day. Ben suggested we go down to the Econlockhatchee River to cool down. I assumed we would use a canoe, but then Ben bizarrely suggested getting a kiddie pool from Wal-Mart. In the huge, horrible store, a purgatory of endless aisles, Ben quickly set his sights on an air mattress, and I picked out a kiddie pool. Why didn’t I notice that Ben didn’t follow his own suggestion? Anyway, I bought some cheap beer and we were off.
Near the river, we started pumping up our unconventional vessels. My kiddie pool had a strange nozzle that made inflation difficult. After half an hour of work, the kiddie pool barely a third inflated, I suggested that we just share the air mattress. Ben, as the veteran, declared that the air mattress would indeed be able to hold both our weight and the beer.
People gave us strange looks. Two guys, one short and fat carrying cheap beer, the other tall and lanky toting an inflated air mattress. We walked barefoot on the gravel path, wincing as sharp rocks sent stings of pain through our feet. We dodged hanging moss and cypress trees, then crossed a small footbridge, eager to begin.
At the riverside, we flopped the air mattress into the water. The sky was darkened by an approaching storm; the river was a deep, dark, blue. We sat back to back, with the six pack wedged between us, water flowing over our hips. We shoved off and let the current take us.
The water was murky from recent rainfall, its surface completely opaque.
“Do you think there are alligators in this river?” I asked.
After a long pause, Ben replied, “Maybe?”
I took a swig of beer.
We floated along and caught up on each other’s lives. I began rambling, as I often do, about the constant ups and downs of my love life, my recent move to North Carolina, and my family vacation to Ireland. Ben then imparted some sage advice about how to maintain long distance relationships as he had just returned from a summer in Bulgaria with the Presbyterians. The banks were sandy and lined with sagging trees. Our craft lilted along, and while the dark sky created a tunnel effect, we drifted towards our destination.
By the time we had reached the rope swing, a spot we always favored in the past, we only had two beers left and had taken to using the empty bottles as especially awkward, makeshift oars. I noticed that the waters had risen so high that the beach on the opposite bank was completely underwater. The darkened, swollen river had a post-apocalyptic aura, and we were piloting Noah’s Ark with empty bottles of IceHouse.
We docked our air mattress against the riverbank and Ben, determined to use the rope swing, climbed ashore using the roots of a massive cypress. Just as I was about to do the same, with the rope swing dangling above me like a carrot on the end of a string, I heard splashing, turned my head, and saw a big scaly tail fling out from under the water. I scrambled much further ashore.
            Normal watercraft, such as canoes, have no real problem with gator-infested water. Except we didn’t have a normal watercraft.
            After twenty minutes of staring intently at the water, we had convinced ourselves that the gator had moved on, boarded our air mattress and began to paddle across the river. Just after we got to the midpoint between the two shores, a gator’s eyes popped above the water, then back below 5 feet in front of me. I shrieked Hail Maries, my Catholic faith surging. We thrashed, and Ben sputtered that alligators are shore predators. We flung ourselves ashore, and Ben climbed up first, then I followed, dragging the mattress with me.
            Back on the path, which is within a few feet of the riverbank, Ben mused, “I don’t know if this makes it better or worse, but that might have been one gator following us, or multiple gators.” I was thankful to be back on a familiar trail that I knew would lead us to the parking lot.
We journeyed back to the car, over the bridge, hearts racing and nerves shot. Our lives, normally sequestered within the world of undergraduate academia, were just interrupted by something extraordinary. We lived lives oriented towards boosting one's resume, networking, and making perfectly mundane choices. We were fools, but many youthful decisions, fraught with danger, are misguided attempts at heroism. The heroic change the world, but fools become tragedies. We, not dead, arrived at the car feeling like heroes. We experienced the river. We were friends. We out-navigated alligators, sort of. We were convinced that day God protects fools, drunks, and children. We were all three. Well, maybe not drunks.
Previously published in The Drunken Odyssey Literary podcast
~Jeremy DaCruz

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