You Must Be Middle-Aged and Jaded to Ride the Torrent River
"Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark" by Elizabeth McCracken, recommended by Matt Bell
Introduction by Matt Bell
Every time I read Elizabeth McCracken’s fiction, I awe at her many gifts: the surprises she wrings out of the situations she devises, the endless wit of her magnificent sentences, the way she treats everyone who appears in her stories with dignity and grace. Over and over, I ask myself, How does she do it?
In an interview at Lit Hub, Elizabeth McCracken said the best writing advice she ever received was from Allan Gurganus, who she said “once told us not to be afraid to get our characters out of the house and send them somewhere more interesting.” In “Robinson Crusoe at the Water Park,” that “somewhere more interesting” is the artificial river at Texas’ Schlitterbahn, an escape for Bruno and Ernest and their young son Cody from their open-plan house in Houston, a house Bruno hates for, among other things, its lack of doors and walls and secrets; it’s no surprise then that this story is in part about the secrets Bruno keeps, as well as his fears of drowning (and of drowning children in particular) and his certainty that anytime Cody disappears “for more than a minute, even in games of hide-and-go-seek, when the boy wouldn’t answer his name” that his son is dead, which quickly becomes “an absolute conviction that he was now looking for a corpse.”
McCracken is one of the too-rare writers whose smartest, most poignant lines are also her funniest, like Bruno’s wish to be honest with Cody about what a bad swimmer the child is, even though the “rule of the household was to encourage”: “One of the things he hadn’t realized before having a child: how many ways there were to die of self-confidence.” Or how Bruno coolly recounts another parent’s unwelcome comments about Cody’s lagging toilet-training, concluding pithily that “modern parenthood” is how “other parents examined your children for deficiencies so they could augur their own child’s future from your child’s psychic entrails.”
Stanley Elkin once said “he would never write about anyone who is not at the end of his rope,” and while that’s not exactly where McCracken starts Bruno off in “Robinson Crusoe at the Water Park,” Bruno is at an everyday extremity of parental concern and care, of marital irritation and affection, suffering the many small indignities of spending an entire day in a lightly Germanic waterpark with his fellow bathing-suited humans, those “hordes of insufficiently dressed humanity.” It doesn’t take long to realize that he’s exactly the wrong parent for Cody’s highly anticipated tubing trip down Torrent River, with its artificial waves and hosts of feral humans, for all the same reasons he’s exactly the right protagonist for this tale.
So be it! Let Ernest drink a margarita in the Schlitterbahn bar, getting a rare moment to himself! Bruno and Cody are going on a story.
Put on your swimsuit, make a margarita if you’d like, and get ready. The Elizabeth McCracken thrill ride starts right now.
— Matt Bell
Author of Appleseed
You Must Be Middle-Aged and Jaded to Ride the Torrent River
“Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark” by Elizabeth McCracken
They had come to Galveston, the boy and his fathers, to look at the ocean and chaw on salt water taffy, but Galveston was solid November fog. As they drove down Seawall Boulevard, the Pleasure Pier emerged from the mist like a ghost ship: first the multicolored lights of the rollercoaster and Ferris wheel, then a billboard for a restaurant: BUBBA GUMP SHRIMP CO.
“Good God,” said Bruno, the older father, the old one. The sky was mild as a milk glass rabbit. He would have said this aloud but nobody else in the car would know what milk glass was. Instead he tried, “I hate the seaside. Where are we going?”
“You know where,” said Ernest, the younger father, who was driving.
Bruno had understood—when he fell in love with a young man, when they bought a house together, when he agreed to children (one child at least) —that his life would become narrower and deeper, fewer trips to Europe, more moments of surprising headlong love. He had never imagined that family life would mean this: a visit to an indoor German-themed waterpark in Galveston, Texas. The fog had done it. They were headed to a location called Schlitterbahn, where there was an artificial river, for their river-obsessed son.
“You’ll feel at home,” said Ernest consolingly. “Being German-themed yourself.”
“Darling, I’m German-flavored. German-scented. Only my mother.”
“A mother counts double,” said Ernest.
Bruno inclined his head toward their son—born to a surrogate, with an anonymous donor egg—in the backseat. They had forbidden him video games, so the boy had fallen in thrall to a pocket calculator, which he carried everywhere, calculating nothing: he could count, reliably, to 6. “Well,” Bruno said.
“I mean, your mother,” Ernest said. “Your particular mother.”
But that was something Bruno and their son had in common. Bruno had an adoptive German-born mother, and a presumably English biological mother who had left him at a public library in Nottingham, England. Not in the book deposit, as he liked to claim, but in the ladies room. In this way Bruno and the boy had the same mother: Anonymous. As in anthologies of poetry, she was the most prolific in human history. This particular Anonymous—Anonymous Nottingham—had left him behind like a beseeching letter to strangers; his parents had adopted him; his parents had divorced; his mother brought him to America. That was his provenance. He catalogued manuscripts for an auction house in Houston, other people’s beseeching letters, other people’s diaries. Provenance was everything, and nothing. The point was not to stay from whence you came, but to move along spectacularly and record every stop.
Still, he did hate the seaside. His beloved worked as a PR person for a technology company that specialized in something called Cloud Services, but Bruno was a person of paper, and the ocean was his enemy. The seaside turned books blowsy and loose. It threw sand everywhere. Its trashy restaurants left you blemished, oil-spotted. It drowned children, according to Bruno’s mother. She had few fears but drowning was one, and she had handed it down to her only son, like an ancestral christening gown that every generation was photographed in.
The fog made them drive slowly, as though not to break their car upon it. Down on the beach a wedding party walked towards them, bride, groom, six blue-clad bridesmaids, two men in tuxes, all of them overweight, one whippet-thin photographer walking backwards. In the lactic light they looked peculiarly buoyant on the sand. Above them, a line of large khaki birds flew parallel to the ocean, heads ducked to avoid the clouds.
“Pelicans!” said Ernest, then, in a hopeful, accusatory voice, “A wedding.”
“Pelicans?” said Bruno. “Surely not.” But there they were, single file and exact, military even, with the smug look of all pelicans. “Pelicans flock!”
“Well, sure,” said Ernest. “What did you think?”
“I thought they were freelancers,” said Bruno. “Pelicans!”
“They looked like brother and sister,” said Ernest, “the bride and her groom. Like salt and pepper shakers.”
“They did,” said Bruno.
The three people in the car, on the other hand, looked nothing alike, though strangers could tell they belonged together. Strangers were always trying to perform the spiritual arithmetic: the tall paunchy goateed near-senior citizen, the short hirsute broad-shouldered young man, the otherworldly child, who called now, from the back seat, in his thrillingly husky voice, his dreams filled with artificial rivers, “Schlitterbomb!”
“Bahn,” said Ernest, and Bruno said, “That’s right, darling, Schlitterbomb.”
Ernest and Bruno had not married, not legally and not, as Ernest would have liked, in a church, or in a friend’s backyard, or on a beach. Bruno did not believe in weddings, though he’d been married once, once for fifteen years, to a woman. He’d been the young husband then. Now when Ernest brought marriage up, Bruno said, “I’m an old hippie,” which was true insofar that he, unlike Ernest, had been alive in the 1960s and had done some drugs.
Why marry, after all. The boy stirring in the backseat was their marriage, even though, from the first, it was Ernest who had summoned him up, first as a dream and then as a plan and then as a to-do list. It was Ernest who wanted a child, and then specified a biological one, who found the donor egg, and the surrogate, and then offered what he thought was a compromise: they could mix their sperm together. “Oh God, how revolting,” said Bruno, and Ernest had pointed out gently that it wouldn’t be exactly the first time. “But not in a laboratory,” said Bruno, who ordinarily was the one with a sense of humor. And so the boy was Ernest’s child by blood, and Bruno’s by legal adoption. Ernest was Daddy and Bruno was Pop; Ernest believed in vows, Bruno in facts and deeds. The important fact was four years old. The fact was named Cody. The fact had never-cut red hair that hung to his shoulders and was so fair-skinned as to be combustible. Every day he was slathered in sunscreen; the first freckle would be a tragedy Ernest might never recover from. God knew when they’d manage a first haircut. When Cody and Bruno were out in the world together, they were generally taken for grandfather and granddaughter, and this thorough wrongness incensed Ernest, though Bruno had learned over the years not to take the mistakes of others too seriously, not when his own mistakes required so much analysis. He couldn’t explain to Ernest the real trouble with a wedding: Ernest’s shocking taste, which he, Bruno, would have to go along with, and smile, and declare himself happy. “I like peach,” Ernest would say, displaying a napkin. Or, “My family loves disco music.” Or, “We could have Beef Wellington.”
Once upon a time, Bruno had had opinions about everything—the politics of Eastern Europe, baby clothes, how airline stewardesses should comport themselves, interior decoration. Then: Ernest. Ernest, from a happy Cuban-American family, had grown up going to Disneyworld for vacations and watching sports on television and buying clothing in actual shopping malls. Ernest had quite the worst taste Bruno had ever encountered. Up-to-date, American taste. For instance: Bruno had never imagined that a person he loved could admire, never mind long for, the abomination that was an open-plan house. Proper houses had doors, had walls, had secrets. But as they watched real estate programs for tips on buying—neither had ever owned property, Ernest because he was young and Bruno because he was lazy—he was horrified to hear Ernest say, “Now see, that’s perfect. You can see everything from the kitchen.”
“Do you know who else likes to see everything from the kitchen?” Bruno asked. “The Devil. Hell is entirely without doors.”
“Heaven doesn’t need doors,” said Ernest.
Then Bruno had to remind himself that Ernest actually believed in heaven and hell, at least a little. So he said of the interior decorator on the television, “Look at that fool. I’m to trust him to arrange my furniture when he can’t even wear a hat at an appealing angle?” Look at that fool, yes, he thought to himself, of himself. That old fool would live in a panopticon, for love of Ernest.
And so Bruno decided to treat his opinions like a childhood collection—decorative spoons, matchbooks—something comprehensive and useless. Put it all away, beneath the bed. Let Ernest decide; let Bruno feel superior. Now they owned a house in Houston, Texas, where when you walked in the front door you could see the kitchen, the dishes in the sink, the nook with the small offering to the gods that was the child’s breakfast: a stem end of baguette, split and spread with jam. The playroom, the backyard, all the ways you could bolt.
Bruno had given up a lot for Ernest. He would not tolerate a wedding.
Schlitterbahn was an enormous medical military arachnoid construction, candy-colored tube slides corkscrewing out of barracks. In the summer it was open to the air; in November, half the park was closed, and half covered against the weather. Bruno had looked up details on his phone; now he said aloud the fake German names in the most authentic German accent he could conjure, the voice of his mother. “Blastenhoff,” he said. “Wasserfest. Surfenburg.”
No matter what you renounced in this life, fate would provide the parody. At the Schlitterbahn box office they had to offer their wrists, and in a quiet ceremony they were braceleted, married to the park. The outdoor attractions—that was the word, attractions—were closed, but there were plenty of indoor attractions. “Most of my own attractions have been indoors,” said Bruno to the young officiant, a plump woman with calligraphed eyebrows, who brandished another bracelet and asked if they wanted splash cash. Do we, asked Bruno. Yes, said Ernest. He shifted Cody on his hip. The boy had already put on his orange goggles, and he rubbed like a robot cat against Ernest’s ear. “Honey, ouch,” said Ernest. “You take it, Gravy.” He stepped aside so that Bruno could offer his wrist to the young woman a second time.
“I’m a good swimmer,” the boy told her.
“Are you? That’s great!”
“Well,” said Bruno.
“I am,” the boy insisted. The rule of the household was to encourage, but Bruno wanted to say, No, sweetheart, you’re an awful swimmer. You suck. One of the things he hadn’t realized before having a child: how many ways there were to die of self-confidence.
In the locker room they crammed their clothing into a minuscule cubby. Only in a bathing suit did Ernest seem un-American: dark, furred, in a pair of unfashionably short but devastating red swim trunks, a 1960s movie idol from another country. Not a Frankie or a Bobby—a Francesco, a Roberto. “Handsome,” said Bruno, accusingly, but Ernest shook his head.
“Ah well,” said Bruno, and started to pull on his navy swimming shirt.
“You don’t need that,” said Ernest. “It’s all inside.”
“I need it,” said Bruno, touching his stomach. “What’s so German about this place? Apart from the nonsensical names?”
“I want a river,” said Cody, shivering in his lime green tights—ankle length, to protect him from the sun and cold both.
“And so you shall have one,” said Bruno.
Bruno took one hand, Ernest the other. They could feel the current flow through their little conductor.
The boy and his rivers. At this, and only this, he was a prodigy. He was slow to walk, to talk, to eat solid food. He still wore a diaper at night, requested another diaper once a day to move his bowels, which he would only do in the kitchen, next to the cupboard with the lazy Susan. Bruno, according to his mother, had been entirely toilet-trained at one and a half, but Cody would be a kindergartener before the process was done. “It’s the sign of a genius,” said one of the mothers at preschool. “Coincidentally,” Bruno had answered, “also the sign of an idiot.” What the mother had meant was it could go either way, they were not yet at the fork in the road between gifted and special. But this mother had children who were toilet-trained at ordinary ages, who hit every milestone in excellent time. Modern parenthood: other parents examined your children for deficiencies so they could augur their own child’s future from your child’s psychic entrails.
They wandered down a plexiglass corridor, in and out of the warmth that fell from the overhead heatlamps. At a dead end a gothicky arrow captioned with gothicky letters pointed right, to something called Faust Und Furious.
“He was German, wasn’t he?” Ernest asked. “Faust?”
After a moment Bruno said, “Technically.”
Eventually they found a room filled with children and their parents, a pirate ship run aground in a shallow pool, hordes of insufficiently dressed humanity. The variety of swimming costumes! Chubby women in two-piece suits, middle-aged women in waterproof dresses, men in flowered trunks, speedos, ankle-length pants. And the navels: sinkholes, champagne corks, thumbprints. Bruno’s own belly button was inward; so was Ernest’s; the boy’s a little loveknot, a souvenir of the day he’d been delivered to them.
Children flew down slides and splash landed. Parents stood watching, or walked babies through the water, or lay on deck chairs as though sunbathing beneath the corrugated roof. Two lifeguards in pointless sunglasses wandered around mid-shin in the water, clutching long foam rescue devices to their abdomens.
The boy started to run in.
“Walking feet!” called Ernest. “Careful, honey.” He turned to Bruno. “Was this a terrible idea?”
“This was your idea.”
“We should get him a lifejacket.”
“It’s one foot of water.”
“You can drown in three inches.”
“I know all the ways you can drown,” said Bruno.
“Yes,” said Ernest, “I’m sorry.”
They looked back. The boy was already gone.
Dead, Bruno decided. He felt this any time he couldn’t locate Cody for more than a minute, even in games of hide-and-go-seek, when the boy wouldn’t answer his name: an absolute conviction that he was now looking for a corpse. This was something he had never told Ernest, who believed Bruno too laissez-faire to do any real parenting. Ernest was reasonable, logical, in his worry. He had a sense of proportion. For Bruno, there was nothing between uncertainty and catastrophe. That was his secret.
“Where is he,” he asked Ernest now.
They ran sloshily through the water. Behind the pirate ship was a smaller slide shaped like a madcap gape-mouthed frog, and here they found the boy sliding down the frog’s great tongue. The goggles gave him the look of a scientist testing gravity.
They perched on the edge of the pool and watched the frog as it vomited toddlers. Toddlers, and Cody, who went up the steps along the frog’s spine and down its tongue as though practicing for later: that exactitude and joylessness. The air seemed made of screaming and flesh. Bruno was grateful for his swim shirt, which hid his gut. He had the urge to reach out with bent fingers and just brush the inside hem of Ernest’s swim trunks, imperceptibly, though it wouldn’t be imperceptible to Ernest, and Ernest wouldn’t approve.
He did it anyhow.
“Gravy,” said Ernest. But he hooked one pinky into Bruno’s Schlitterbahn bracelet and gave it a fond tug.
Then Cody was at their knees. “I want my river,” he said. “I want to tube on my river.”
“Of course,” said Bruno, and Cody smiled again. His teeth were even, loosely strung. Bruno had always been appalled by parents who lamented the passing of their children’s youth. If you could just keep them this age! And what would be the result? A child like a bound foot, a bonsai tree.
O Cody and his milk teeth: just a little longer, please.
The fact was Bruno was no better than anyone: he knew they’d got the best one. The best child, the most beautiful and distinct. The red hair out of nowhere, the ability to hail a waitress across a restaurant. The love of maps, and of birds, the obsession with Charlie Chaplin. The native slapstick. The way he liked to caress with his shoulders and the side of his head. His animal nature. Yes, he loved birds but he wanted to take them out of the sky, too. Sometimes Bruno worried that this was an inheritance from him, how they both wanted everything they loved twitching under the weight of one big paw.
A pair of double doors took them outside into the chill, where a heated pool spun steam from its surface as though it were the source of Galveston’s fog, on one side a swim-up bar advertising Bud Lite. A middle-aged woman sat on a half-sunk barstool and tipped blue fluid into her mouth from a statuesque glass.
“A bar,” said Ernest, in a voice of wonder, he who had given up bars for parenthood. (Bruno had given them up longer ago, for other reasons.)
“Have a drink,” Bruno said.
“Why not? We’re on vacation.”
They stepped, the three of them, into the slapping heat of the pool. The bartender was a young man with dark skin and dreadlocks, perhaps hired to match the island theme. He was dry, the bar itself a dam that kept back the water. “Under eighteen’s got to be on the other side,” he said in a Texan accent. He indicated a beaded rope stretched across the middle of the pool. “I’m sorry, guys,” he said.
“Oh well,” said Ernest, turning around.
“Sit,” said Bruno. “Shall we find the river, Code? While Daddy rests and has a drink.”
“Yes,” said Cody seriously, as though he’d been arguing this for hours.
“No,” said Ernest.
“Have a margarita,” said Bruno, who knew that to be granted permission was a kind of love for the long-partnered. Nothing major, not quitting your job to be an artist, not traveling solo for six months. A drink. Another slice of cake. An hour of foolish pleasure in bed with somebody else. The love of children was said to be unconditional, but it was nothing but conditions. I don’t love you anymore! Cody might shout, when refused more television, and Ernest—the disciplinarian and therefore the spurned—would say, You don’t mean it. But Bruno was a man of the world, Bruno could see that it was exactly true, just as in another hour it would be exactly false. That was the alarming thing about some people, how their love was like the beaded rope across the pool: the substance was continuous, but it was only the beads that kept it afloat. Some people could put love down and pick it back up and not know why your feelings were hurt by the loveless intervals, which in the end made no difference.
“Are you sure?” Ernest asked.
“What a nice grandpa!” said the lady at the bar. Her sunhat appeared, like its owner, intoxicated but doing its best.
“Not really,” said Bruno.
“I’m just being friendly,” the woman said, in a menacing voice.
“Me, too,” said Bruno. To Ernest, he said, “Sit and have a drink. For God’s sake, when were you last alone?”
Ernest took a seat around the corner from the woman, who swiveled on her stool to watch him pass. “I won’t know what to do with myself,” he said, and then shyly, gesturing at Bruno’s wrist, “you’ve got the money.”
“Of course!” He waded back into the pool. “Stay there, Cody.”
“Cold,” said Cody, and shivered dramatically. “Let’s go to the river.”
“You’re doing great,” Bruno said warmly. “Now, how does this work?”
The bartender took his wrist with a tender familiarity, a secret handshake, a pulse-taking. Just in case Bruno hadn’t caught his meaning, the bartender winked, in a cousinly way. He moved Bruno’s wrist past the register, which beeped.
“You could buy me a drink,” said the woman. Her glass was empty; her teeth were blue. “It’s Thanksgiving. It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow. I’m drunk.”
“I know,” said Bruno.
“Really?” said the woman.
“This isn’t, as I believe we say, my first rodeo. And for the lady.” He nodded at the bartender, but perhaps he only longed for another gentle handling of his wrist, the beep that acknowledged a transaction. There it was. “Magic!”
“There’s a transponder,” Ernest explained. “It keeps track.”
“Cloud services,” said Bruno.
“I don’t think so,” said the bartender.
“Cloud services,” said Bruno, more seriously, and Ernest said, “Yes.”
Back inside, around the corner, some poor soul in a dachshund costume talked—no, silently communed—with a tube-topped woman and her crewcutted preteen son. The dachshund costume wore a collar with a large round tag that said, Schatzie! Its mouth was open in a hideous permanent smile, filled in with a black net grill. Behind the grill glittered a pair of human eyes. Bruno tried to meet them. It was as misbegotten a creature as Hieronymus Bosch ever dreamt up. Bruno and Cody turned onto a bridge and looked over, and there it was: the river. Families floated along on single inner tubes, or on figure-eight shaped inner tubes built for two. In Texas, tube was a verb, meaning, to ride upon one. The chlorinated air smelled of infection being held just at bay.
“River,” said Cody.
The bridge led eventually to an artificial beach. The river was circular. On the right families pushed off on their journeys; on the left, they staggered out, pulling their inner tubes behind them. Bruno had the familiar sensation of having washed up himself on some shore, with no memory of his passage—not just how he got here, Schlitterbahn, Galveston, Texas, but his life, in which he lived with a man and had a child and loved both.
He found a double inner tube from a stack near the water, a doughnut on one side and on the other a ring with a plastic floor that said, BABY SEAT. MAX WEIGHT 25 POUNDS. He had no idea how much the boy weighed. That was Ernest’s department. Look at him, skinny thing, his ribcage an upturned rowboat. They waded in, and Bruno lifted Cody into the baby seat so he faced forward, could hold onto the handles on either side. They pushed out and the current took them. Bruno heaved his torso up and grabbed the tube on either side of the boy. They went around a corner, past a palm tree and a flotilla of fully dressed women in hijabs floating together.
He had the panicky, recurring feeling that he’d forgotten to remove his watch, but it was only the shackles of the waterpark around his wrists. Half the people in the artificial river were swimming it, a whirl of limbs, no vessels. Boys, mostly, of all ethnicities, pink and umber and tawny and brown and sienna. It seemed as though there’d been a shipment of boys, and their boat had crashed, and here were the survivors. The Raft of the Medusa at the Waterpark. There were a lot of them, shouting in petrifying pleasure at each other. The water got rougher. Bruno reached around Cody and grabbed the rings. “Are you all right?” No answer. He realized with alarm that this had been a rotten idea. Impossible to know how deep the water was. Deep enough to buffet them along. A baby seat? Who would take a baby on something like this? They ran over one of the swimming boys, who popped up choking, laughing.
Bruno knew all the ways you could drown because his mother had told him, and because of Eleanor, now ten years dead, his wife for fifteen years, Eleanor of the psychiatrists and misdiagnoses, Eleanor whom he loved as well as he’d ever imagined loving anyone, until he met Ernest, when he realized his essential trouble might also have been a question of extraordinary misdiagnosis, though he only had himself to blame.
Eleanor, had she been alive, would have made fun of Ernest, not because he was a man (which might have thrilled her) but because he was conventional. A terrible insult, from Eleanor. To not know Faust was the fiction and Goethe the German! They had never had children because she had a horror of a living thing inside her body, she said she couldn’t believe that modern science hadn’t figured out a less barbaric way to reproduce. One that might allow you to drink as much as you liked, for instance: the studies were just coming out, then, that suggested in utero alcohol was a bad idea. (So why, he imagined her saying now, surveying the Schlitterbahn crowds, did children ever since seem to be getting stupider?) She was the author of most of Bruno’s opinions. Holding them was his way of keeping her alive; not insisting on them was his way of doing the same for himself. She had started to lose her memory. Could be early Alzheimer’s, her doctor said, or arteriosclerosis, or more likely alcoholic insult to the brain, and Bruno hadn’t cared: you don’t worry about arson or faulty wiring till after the structure has fully burned to the ground. She’d died in the swimming pool at their apartment complex, drowned, full of vodka and Valium, she who’d once swum laps for an hour every morning. Maybe she’d forgotten how many she’d taken. Maybe she’d merely remembered the full measure of what she’d forgotten. You must have known, said Ernest, when they fell in love a year later, you knew all along about yourself, you liked men. Bruno could only say, I was waiting for you.
He and Eleanor had been married in a sad ritual. Her parents were dead; his mother, who was only ten years older than Eleanor, had hated her immediately. Eleanor had bought a white dress because Bruno had told her that his mother cared about such things. His mother had laughed in her face. “Well,” said Eleanor, afterwards, “we’ll never do that again, thank God.”
The current picked up. The banks of the river were made of tile. The palisades were tiled as well and studded with more bored lifeguards, standing like unemployed goats. He looked up and longed for the pelicans of the morning, their competence and precision. His biceps ached from holding on. He couldn’t see Cody’s face. At the next turn, a young park employee stood up to his waist in the crashing water. His job was to catch inner tubes as they threatened to bash into a wall, to send them in the right direction. How could so badly designed a thing exist at a place meant for children? Bruno paddled his feet. He wanted to avoid the guy, but instead they knocked right into him. “Sorry!” he shouted, and then they were shoved away, in the opposite direction, in front of the wave machine.
Now they were surrounded by loose boys and empty bobbing inner tubes. “Hold tight!” he commanded Cody as he heard a wave behind them. A woman in a neon pink swimming dress clung to a single inner tube. Clawed at it. They hadn’t seen this stretch of river from the bridge. Every few seconds some hidden mechanism slapped out a wave, which then lifted the flotsam—people, tubes, goggles, swim shoes—and dropped the flotsam, and smacked the flotsam on the head. Even artificial rivers are careless, Cody.
Survivors of the Whaleship Essex at the Waterpark. The Lusitania at the Waterpark. The Poseidon Adventure at the Waterpark.
He’d thought he hadn’t wanted children because Eleanor hadn’t wanted them. He hadn’t wanted them for that reason. Eleanor was already forty when they’d married, and she’d convinced herself she was too old. Perhaps he was too old, too, but here was his heartbreaker, screaming as they bounced along.
“Are you all right?”
The boy nodded the back of his head. You could hear the waves from the wave machine behind you before they lifted you up. That was good. They were just one turn from the beach. Now Bruno was holding Cody’s right wrist to the starboard handle of the inner tube. Every wave threatened to scupper them. What would happen then? Would it jolt a lifeguard into action? Would the boy be picked up by the passengers of another tube? Sucked into the filtration system? Bruno thought of Ernest drinking at the swim-up bar, Ernest who would never forgive himself, though he would forgive Bruno, and that would be the worst thing that could ever happen to either one of them. No, not the worst thing.
A bullying wave pushed the edge of their raft, tipped them, rushed overhead, and swept Cody away.
Above the river the burghers of Schlitterbahn saw the flash of pale flesh, the hair that streamed behind as though a cephalopodic defense, stay away. The last inhabitant of the lost city of Atlantis, washed into the waters of Torrent River—that was its name. A little boy, surrounded and then eclipsed by the bigger boys, the wild boys of the German-themed waterpark. “Look out!” shouted a blue-tongued woman from the bridge, but she was drunk, and already the other people doubted what they had seen, and besides, so what? Those feral boys would take him in. They never went home, those boys, they lived here, they circled and circled, howling and laughing and dreaming of home.
“Cody!” Bruno shouted. “Cody!”
The boys found the body and lifted it up, and then there was his own child’s stunned face, one hand out, and Bruno snagged it, and they were back in each other’s arms, bumping up onto the incline of the concrete beach. Cody coughed. He was alive. Not a lifeguard had shifted. They were surrounded by wild delight, shrieking, flesh, stove by a whale, but safe.
When they had staggered out—not onto dry land, there was nothing, nothing, nothing dry in all Schlitterbahn—Bruno realized that the water had stripped the swimming tights right off, that Cody now stood, naked, just as God had made him—though God hadn’t been anywhere near Cody’s conception, an event Ernest called a miracle. Quite the opposite, Bruno had thought. Ordinarily he hated God getting credit for Science’s good work. Yet here the boy was, the narrow naked awkward miracle.
“Jesus,” said a voice. A man, this new model they now made, tremendously fat from the hips up, an epidermic barrel, skinny as a kid from the hips down, such a precarious construction it hurt Bruno to look at him. “Cover that kid up!”
Their towels were back by the pirate ship. Bruno took off his shirt, and draped it over his son, to make him decent.
At the Wasserfest Bar, Ernest stirred the slush at the bottom of his drink. O Schlitterbahn! The freckled, the fat, the hairy, the veiny, the chubby girls in bikinis, the umbilically pierced, the expertly tattooed, the amateurishly scrawled on, the comely, the grotesque, all the Boolean overlap: Ernest thought he’d never felt so tender to the variety of human bodies. He loved them all. Every bathing suit was an act of bravery.
“Yes,” he said, to the bartender, whose name was Romeo, “I’d like another,” and there was his family: Bruno with water dripping from his beard, Cody wrapped in some black cape which he now flung off, saying, “Daddy! Daddy! I capsized! I capsized! I was saved!”
“Naked!” said Cody.
“Marry me,” said Bruno, galumphing in.