Sorry about that. A four-day trip to Chicago has diverted my attention. I'm back. Here we go:
After scurrying around to throw on some clothes, they came to the door.
Dusty and Clint. It was clear by their accents and all the nonverbal cues - that men learn to recognize in other men - that what we had here were two gay, native Arkansan, Shetland pony ranchers, who had a strong interest in bourbon and baseball.
We had to explain ourselves to Dusty and Clint several times before they understood our predicament. Admittedly, our situation jumped the grooves of normal expectations; but the fog of alcohol was making it even harder for them to comprehend.
"You came from where?"
"What happened, exactly?"
I felt like the family in Flanner O'Connor's story A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Jeff and I were John Wesley and June Star shouting "We've had an ACCIDENT! We've had an ACCIDENT!" I was just hoping we had not stumbled upon the Misfit and Bobby Lee, the escaped convicts that end up murdering the family in cold blood.
Before long, Dusty and Clint drew a bead on the situation and started scrambling to help. We used their phone to call the canoe outfitter. No answer. Clint drove us down to the river in his his pickup and we hauled our crew up to the house.
Finally, Jeff and Clint decided they would have to take the truck and try to find our vehicle. Good luck. We had no idea where we were, or what bridge the Suburban was supposed to be under. It was about 9:30 when they pulled down the driveway on their search.
The rest of us settled in the living room to wait. Some of us lounged on the couch and most of the kids scattered on the floor. We made small talk and pretended we were all very interested in the fate of the Cardinals. However, I couldn't shake the uneasy feeling I'd had since we came upon the goose.
I kept my eyes on Dusty. He was uncomfortable and fidgety. He kept getting up to go to another room. Each time he left, I made up a reason I needed to follow him. I had to try the outfitter's number again. I needed a glass of water. I guess I was being paranoid, but this was rural Arkansas, and these guys had to have firearms in the house. I think it's the law: Live in rural Arkansas, have gun.
After 11:00 had come and gone, Dusty started to get visibly agitated. His drunk had turned to the droop-eyed stare. I found him gazing darkly at the girls from time to time. Out of nowhere, he would pop out of his trance and ask, "How did you all get here again?" Or, "Somebody tell me what's going on again." Clint was clearly the one who kept it together around here, and Dusty was getting scared. Don't get me wrong, Dusty was a good host. He was kind and helpful, but as the hours passed, the paranoia and bourbon were burning deeper into his brain.
About 11:30 Dusty gestured to me. "C'mo...C-c-can you...c-c'mon out here...side...I need talk t' you." He busted out the front door, clearly upset and ready for a confrontation. I followed him, keeping my eyes on loose objects I could use as weapons. Dusty was a pretty small guy, I think I would have been able to take him pretty easily, but this daddy wasn't going to leave anything to chance.
He pulls me around the side of the house and starts to cry.
"What's going on here?" he sputters. "I don't know y-you. I d-don't know w-what's goin' on. Where's Clint?"
I try to reassure him. "It's okay, Dusty. This must all seem pretty weird to you. But, I'm sure they are just having a hard time finding the car."
"Clint's all I have," said Dusty, with his chin drawn toward his shoulder and the top of his head swaying back to the other shoulder. As he then turned and looked me square in the face, he said, "I'm scared."
I tried to give him a reassuring smile. "I know, Dusty. I'm sorry. Surely they'll be back any minute now."
Then, it happened. He looked me up and down. He spread his arms like Christ and hung his head. He was either that drunk, or that ashamed of this betrayal.
"Can I have a hug?" His body hiccupped a little with sobs.
I was confused. What was I supposed to do? I was still fairly new to the world of liberal sensibilities. I had been raised to believe that this man's lifestyle was sinful. Was I to support it? Was hugging him a tacit endorsement? Would he take it as a come-on? Would a kiss be next? Besides, I was still a little scared myself. My fear and the residue of adolescent homophobia bested my impulse toward grace.
"No, Dusty. I'm not going to hug you. I know you are upset...they'll...be back...soon." My words trailed off as I stood there in shame. Now I felt like crying. I had chosen the route of safety and suspicion. What was I so afraid of? How was this small, scared, drunk, gay man a threat to me? I was spinning.
A few minutes later, around midnight, Jeff and Clint pulled up in two separate vehicles. They had finally found the Suburban, after an exhaustive search of the Northern Arkansas bridge population.
With great relief, we offered our thanks and made our departure. I was experiencing a strange hangover of release and guilt.
Jeff and his family exchanged Christmas cards with Dusty and Clint for a couple of years after that. Eventually they lost touch. I'm ashamed to say that I never pursued the relationship with those men. I suppose part of me rationalized it as Jeff being our spokesman. But, I guess there were just too many secrets I had learned about all of us.
A river ran through us that day. I can't help but think that the Kings, in its sovereignty, took us where it wanted us to be; changed the course of our lives just a little. Sure, the river left us with a great story - few people get to tell about being rescued by gay Shetland pony ranchers in Arkansas - but, I always tell it with a certain amount of regret.
Float trip anyone?