J.T. Townley

So it’s not like we kidnapped her exactly.

It was the pitch of night, and we finished a joint, then got ourselves organized. Paddles, life vests. Then we canoed to the far end of Lake Travis, almost.

My shoulders ache, we said.

My hands are blistered, we said.

My arms are dead, we said.

We leaned into the night to smoke a bowl, wondering why we’d been so gung-ho to volunteer for this little mission. Waves lapped at the fiberglass hull.  Lightning strobed in the distance. We clung to the gunwales, hoping we still remembered how to swim.

We needed a new boat, and lucky for us, we found one tied to the first dock we investigated. It sparkled and shimmered in our flashlight glow. No one was using it. There was plenty of room. The Evinrude purred when we hit the ignition, and we gunned it across the lake, then down the swollen Colorado. The night felt soft against our stubbled faces.

We went all the way into the city, past Loop 360 and MoPac and Lamar. We followed the river till we hit (almost literally) the First Street bridge, then we motored on down into SoCo. The streets were like canals. We took it slow, slaloming through jetsam and flotsam. Not just tree branches and old tires, but acoustic guitars by the dozens, an accordion, a complete drum kit. The thick air smelled dank and murky. Frogs croaked, cicadas droned.

It took a while to find Jerry’s place, though we’d been there a thousand times. Things looked different in the dark, in a flood. The house was up a little hill, so we landed the boat and hoofed it. The door was locked. We rang the bell, but Luisa didn’t answer. Still, we knew she was home because her tears were streaming beneath the door. If this went on, the city would be completely underwater by morning. So we did what had to be done, then took her down to the boat.

We didn’t waste any time getting back. Of course, it wasn’t easy to keep Luisa, or ourselves, in the boat, the way she lurched and lunged, despite all the rope. We were lousy with knots. When she started biting, we gagged her with a bandana, then cut the engine long enough to light a spliff. But the current was strong, so we only got in a toke or two before we had to fire the Evinrude up again. Somehow we made it back without anyone drowning.

 

Even if maybe we wouldn’t come off like heroes, we had to do something. The storms had raged for the better part of a week, with thunder and lightning and torrential rain, high winds and flash-floods and tornadoes. And on our week off! Now the rain had stopped, but the floodwaters weren’t receding. Just the opposite: they were still rising!

Maybe we’re hallucinating, we said.

Not unless this ganja’s laced, we said.

Then what’s going on? we said.

We mulled on it over bong hits. We puzzled as we munched Zingers and drank spiked coffee. We picked Jerry’s brain, but that got us nowhere, since he sat in the corner, flipping playing cards at the trash can. A steady herb diet seemed to bring him clarity: his eyes brightened and his face relaxed. Still, the mumbled responses he offered were mostly incoherent. He was hung up on his lady, while we were stuck on the weather. We pondered and brooded, stuffing Ding Dongs into our maws. Then, in the middle of the night, after smoking a giant spliff of Mexican Haze, it hit us.

It’s a false dichotomy, we said.

Floods and tears, we said.

We have to get them back together, we said.

Three of us volunteered. We wanted what was best for everyone. Plus, we hadn’t been canoeing since we were kids.

 

Jerry and Luisa weren’t exactly ecstatic to see each other. We hadn’t expected that. It caught us off-guard. Luisa was subdued for a while, probably because, when the gag didn’t calm her down, one of us shucked his t-shirt and tied it over her head as a blindfold. She freaked out at first, growling and clawing at our faces, but it was for her own good. And look: it worked! At least, until we took it off. Of course, the light was dim, so her eyes had to adjust. Lightning knocked the power out, then the generator ran out of gas, so we were down to candles. But soon as she spotted Jerry, all hell broke loose.

Dirty, cheating bastard! she yelled.

Then she went after him. We weren’t entirely sure how she freed her hands, which had been bound with ropes. Maybe we should’ve used duck tape. Luckily, we didn’t wait around to find out what she had in mind for Jerry. We subdued her with packing tape we found above the refrigerator, stuffing a sock in her mouth to keep her from shrieking threats and obscenities.

Jerry corralled us hastily in the kitchen. One of us stood watch over Luisa from the doorway, just in case.

What the hell is she doing here? he asked.

Surprised? we said.

Grateful? we said.

Impressed? we said.

Lemme get this straight, Jerry said, rubbing his eyes in the yellow candle-flame flicker. You kidnapped my wife?

That wasn’t what had happened at all, not exactly, and we told him so. We reminded him about his so-called infidelity and Luisa’s heartbreak and the floods that were inundating the city. We explained about the tears running like a river from beneath his front door. As we passed around a fat spliff, we suggested that he might’ve misjudged our character.

We’ve got moxie, we said.

Guts, we said.

Gusto, we said.

We took long tokes, exchanging half-smiles.

Jerry rubbed his temples and frowned. What you are, he said, is a bunch of fucking idiots.

 

We were hanging out in the living room, sprawling on old sofas and easy chairs, taking bong hits and munching Twinkies. Maybe we weren’t soaked to the skin anymore, but dampness clung to us like a bad memory. Our keys rattled on carabiners clipped to the belt loops of our cut-off jeans. We adjusted our cycling caps and pawed at our wet raglan-sleeved t-shirts. Our tattoos rippled in the bad lighting. Someone pulled off his retro running shoes and wrung out his socks on the warped wood floors.

We were loopy and laughing, ribbing the new guy, when Jerry tromped through the door. He sported a torn poncho and carried a fishing pole. He looked like a hobo on hard times.

Aren’t you supposed to be in Hawaii? we wondered.

He nodded, trudging across the room and plopping down onto a sagging love seat. Maui, he said.

We held our breath, and not just because we’d taken another huge bong hit. The Ho Ho’s, we noticed, were already running low.

Then what are you doing here? we asked.

It took Jerry a long time to answer. The herb and patchouli mingled with the mildewed rugs. Someone mixed up chocolate milkshakes in a blender that dated from long before any of us were born. We began to crave big, greasy cheeseburgers.

Laying low, was all Jerry would say for a while.

We let it ride. It was really none of our business. After all, it was Jerry’s cabin, so he could come and go as he pleased and expect not to be hassled, never mind he was letting us use it for the week while he and Luisa celebrated their anniversary in Maui. Plus, Jerry was our boss at The Betterday Café, where we made espressos and brought enlightenment to the seething hordes. There was plenty of room at the cabin for one more. Plenty of ganja, too, and if it happened to run out, Jerry would have more. He always did. Anyway, when he was ready to talk, we’d be there to listen.

He didn’t say peep until after the fresh-baked space cakes.

Remember that cute blonde I had in last week? he asked.

Singer-songwriter chick? we said.

Katrina? we said.

Christina? we said.

Something like that. So Luisa was driving by right when I was walking the girl out the door. She can be like that sometimes.

Hot-blooded? we said.

Jealous? we said.

Possessive? we said.

Jerry’s cackle drowned out the scratchy Stevie Ray Vaughn record spinning on the vintage hand-cranked turntable. All of the above, he said. Y’all know what that girl was like, flirty and everything, and I’m not saying I minded it exactly. But it’s not like she wasn’t carrying a guitar case, right?

So what happened? we asked.

That’s just it, he said. I can’t say exactly. Soon as I stepped through the door, Luisa jumped down my throat, calling me a liar and a cheater and a bunch of other things in Spanish, just screaming and yelling and flailing at me with all kinds of sloppy slaps and punches. Took me a minute, but I caught the gist and explained about our new acoustic corner and so on, but Luisa wouldn’t have it. Said she knew I was two-timing her and she’d make me pay for it.

What does that mean? we said.

Pay how? we said.

What could she do? we said.

Jerry swallowed a chuckle, then smoked a bowl, listening to SRV wail. When the pipe was empty and the song was over, he said, Luisa’s from a tight-knit family. Old school Tejano, if you catch my drift.

We wrestled with the idea for a moment.

We don’t get it, we admitted.

He puckered in disgust. Her brothers, he said. That’s why I came out here. They’re probably looking for me as we speak. A score to settle. That’s how it works in her family.

None of us had considered that angle. We packed Jerry a bowl and brought him Kettle chips, anything to take his mind off the situation.

Thunder boomed, lightning cracked, the rain fell in torrents.

 

Floodwaters roared like the inside of a seashell, but we were on what Jerry called a bluff, high above the lake, so no worries. We cranked the tunes to drown out the clamor. We smoked another bowl. Some of us stuffed cupcakes into our faces and danced. The roaring swelled over our music. We peered out the windows to survey the situation, but it was the middle of the night, so we couldn’t see much. Still, the murky funk of lake water was unmistakable. From the deck this morning, wobbly and reeling, we gazed down at it fifty feet below us. But overnight the lake had become a river, and now the river was flowing right outside the door.

This could get interesting.

A booming like thunder. Luisa screamed and huddled closer to Jerry on the couch in an emergency flashlight glow. (When she’d finally calmed down, we un-taped her from the chair and threw the slobbery gag out the window.) Another boom, but where was the lightning? Not a flash or streak or bolt. The cabin shook and shimmied from foundation to cedar shingles, bedrock gone Magic Fingers. Windows rattled and cupboards clattered. We all held our breath. That worked out well: most of us had just taken a big bong hit.

Then we noticed the floor went spongy. We felt dizzy and unmoored, but it wasn’t the Columbian Gold. A bobbing sensation. A slow spinning. A feeling of downstream movement.

What’s happening? shouted Jerry.

Dude! we said.

Awesome! we said.

Righteous! we said.

¡Hijos de puta! yelled Luisa.

Look out the window and tell me what you see, said Jerry.

He pitched one of us his flashlight. It traced an incandescent arc across the black room, landing with a clunk at our feet. It went dark. We heard batteries rolling up and down the room. Maybe the floors sloped? Every direction?

Luisa rattled off again. The only word we caught was estupido.

When we’d chased down the batteries, we snapped the light on. Brought out our stash and Zigzags and rolled a fatty. We sparked it, then passed it to Luisa, who needed it more than any of us. She scrunched her nose up and waved it away. As it made the circle, we were tempted to aim the light up under our chins and tell ghost stories, only we couldn’t remember any. Anyway, we were having trouble keeping our feet. When we finally got to the window and waved the light around outside, we understood why.

Woah! we said.

What is it? said Jerry.

Luisa muttered under her breath.

Know what they say, we said.

Go with the flow, we said.

And flow with the go, we said.

We chuckled and high-fived and passed the joint around.

But Jerry’d had enough. He stormed over to the window. Gimme that, he said, grabbing the flashlight. He shined it around, then said: Holy shit!

Because his cabin was now afloat.

Alone in the dark, Luisa sobbed and sobbed.

 

By the time we got to the lake, it was pouring. Just our luck. Jerry not only gave us the week off, but the keys to his cabin on Lake Travis, and what happened? A veritable deluge. We’d never seen it rain so hard. We sat in the car, glum-faced, passing around a skunky joint, watching the rain come down in sheets. Lightning strobed. Thunder pealed. The car shook. We huddled together, taking perfunctory puffs and straining to hear the radio through the deafening roar.

Half an hour later, the rain finally slacked off a little. It was still coming down, but at least the house was almost visible, and we could make out the flagstone path to the front door. We hustled our backpacks and grocery bags inside. It couldn’t have taken ten seconds. We still got soaked.

We were baristas by day, poets, artists, and musicians by night, and we needed a break from the whole scene. We kept strange schedules and late hours. It took most of us three double-espressos and a pack of cigarettes to wake up, a six-pack and a nickel bag to come down. In the back of our minds, we suspected it wasn’t sustainable. That’s why we jumped at Jerry’s offer. We had big plans: relaxing, skinny-dipping, lazing in the sun. We might even give fishing a shot, if we could find the fishing poles and remember not to drink too much.

We hadn’t counted on the rain. Like everyone else, we’d heard the forecast, only nobody believed it. There’d been a drought longer than most people could remember—since before we moved to the ATX, possibly before we went to college. Then, almost as soon as Jerry passed us the keys to the cabin, thunderheads began building off to the west. By the time we’d made a grocery run and piled into our cars, the sun disappeared behind a canopy of gray. The temperature dropped ten degrees. The air felt thick. We could smell ozone.

Tut-tut, we said. Looks like rain.

 

So there we were, in the pitch of night, sloshing around in the middle of Lake Travis. Or maybe we’d already been washed down the Colorado? There was no way of knowing. Nothing we could really do anyway. Instead, we took bong hits and ate Sno Balls. We listened to more SRV on the turntable: The Sky Is Crying, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Texas Flood. The house creaked and moaned. The steady flow of herb gave us peace of mind.

Didn’t know you had a houseboat, we said.

The SS Betterday, we said.

Jerry’s arc, we said.

We half-expected Luisa to go off the deep end again. But when we glimpsed her face in the wandering flashlight glow, she seemed peaceful, for her. She snuggled in close to Jerry, and they both acted as if she’d never threatened castration with a dull carving knife. They said very little. We made stupid jokes or commented on the marijuana, the particular variety, the quality of high. We lit more candles so we wouldn’t waste the flashlight batteries.

The elephant in the room disappeared in a dense ganja fog.

The cabin bounced, shimmied, and swirled in the dark floodwaters. We paid no attention, rolling a monster spliff. Seriously, biggest one we’d ever seen, had to use old newsprint for rolling papers. We stuffed in most of our stash. We could always score some more from Jerry next time we got paid. One of us lit it, took a toke, then passed it on. The sweet aroma permeated the room almost immediately.

It wasn’t long before Luisa said, Can I try some?

We sent the herbal cigarette her direction, biting down our grins. We watched and giggled and waited, the candle flames casting distorted shadows on the wood-planked walls. But she didn’t break into a spasm of hacking like we expected. Instead, she took a long drag and, smiling big as Christmas, passed the joint to Jerry. We should’ve known. With Jerry for a hub, she had to have lots of practice.

When the THC hit, she said, Sorry for all the nasty things I said.

We nodded and grinned and chuckled under our breath.

Sorry for wanting to claw your eyes out, she said.

No problem, we wanted to say, but we were all busy with our humongous spliff, or else stuffing our mouths with Donettes.

Sorry for thinking you were screwing that little rubia slut, she said.

Even high as we were, we knew that wasn’t meant for us.

Jerry hugged her close. I’d never step out on you, baby, he said.

I don’t know why I get like that, said Luisa.

No worries, we said.

It’s all good, we said.

We do crazy shit all the time, we said.

By now, the joint made it back around to Luisa, and she took another impressive toke. When she finally exhaled, she said, Thank you for bringing me to Jerry. I hated you so much before I understood. She passed the spliff to Jerry. You went to all that trouble just for me. Gracias, amigos.

That wasn’t the whole story, of course, but we let it go.

No big deal, we said.

Any time, we said.

Happy to help, we said.

I feel terrible, said Luisa through a bout of sobbing.

Then the waterworks came back on. We couldn’t be sure what triggered the tears, though it was possible the cannabis was to blame, at least in part. There was nothing for it now. At first, they came at a trickle, and we hoped that would be the end of it. No such luck. Jerry tried to console her, holding her close, petting her long black mane, whispering in her ear. Yet before long, Luisa was bawling her eyes out. It made a serious racket, drowning out some of our favorite tunes, but the real trouble was the tears. Pretty soon, the floors were drenched. Not five minutes later, the tears were ankle-deep. Even as we floated downriver, the cabin was flooding from the inside out!

Jerry? we said.

Bossman? we said.

We’ve got a serious problem, we said.

When Jerry realized what was happening, he took command. Get buckets! he yelled. Bowls, blenders, whatever you can find!

We bailed and bailed, scooping up Luisa’s tears and pitching them into the sinks and toilets, out the open windows. All the while, Luisa was still crying her eyes out, which didn’t make our job any easier. In fact, we couldn’t keep up.  We bailed until our backs ached and shoulders screamed, until our arms burned and hands cramped. Everything stank of lake funk, mildew, and sadness.

After what felt like a lifetime of bailing, maybe twenty minutes or half an hour, we realized we’d made a big mistake. We were waste-deep in tears. Luisa would be the death of us. But what could we do? So we bailed a little and smoked a little. We bailed a little more and told each other jokes. We bailed some more and shared the last of the cupcakes. Anything to keep our minds off the one thing everyone was thinking about.

But we lucked out. Big time. At some point during the night, after we’d all but given up on bailing, Luisa stopped crying. The sobs petered out. The tears stopped flowing. Maybe Jerry managed to distract her, or maybe she fell asleep. Who knew? None of us really cared. The floodwaters were no longer on the rise, inside or out, so now we could rest easy. We bailed tears until they no longer sloshed around the cabin floor. Then we rolled the day’s last joint. But we were so exhausted, we passed out before we could even light it.

We woke up just as light began trickling into the cloudless blue. We felt dopey and unrested. We couldn’t have slept more than a couple hours. Despite the power outage, the Lone Stars in the fridge were still cool, and we each guzzled one, then sipped a second. We wandered into the living room, where we found Jerry and Luisa snuggled up together on the sofa, sound asleep. We grinned and high-fived and made a muted fuss over a job well done.

It worked, we said.

What genius! we said.

And she didn’t even kill us first, we said.

The cabin bobbed and swiveled in the water like a fishing cork, but we no longer felt that unsettling downstream thrust. We stumbled to the window and gazed at the miracle of clear skies. As the house slowly rotated, we got our bearings.

Downtown, we said.

Bat Bridge, we said.

SoCo, we said.

We rubbed the sleep from our eyes. Someone lit a joint, but we didn’t smoke it. Instead, we flipped it into the lake and laughed and ate the last of the Honey Bees. Mockingbirds twittered and cawed from the eaves. The sun shimmered into view, casting the world in pink, salmon, and tangerine.

But the moment couldn’t last. It would all be over before we knew it. In fact, we could already hear the womp-thwack of the news choppers headed our way. So we grinned at each other, then stripped down to our skivvies and dove out the windows. The water was tepid and tasted of salt, but we didn’t mind. We yelled Marco! and Polo! as we treaded water and swam circles around the cabin. We climbed up to the roof and executed swan dives and front flips and cannonballs, careful to avoid floating debris as we plunged back into the lake. A raccoon dancing on the keys of a baby grand. A pit bull paddleboarding on a Stratocaster. A tubing longhair picking dirty blues on a Dobro. Maybe we looked like total nutjobs, splashing and playing in the very floodwaters that nearly did us in. Maybe we were. But the sun was finally out, and our vacation wasn’t over yet. Plus, for the first time any of us could remember, we were glad to be alive. We were going to make the most of it.