The Floater by Leo Kuelbs

I feel like I’m some type of new person—maybe more amphibian than human—floating in a sea of accepted reality. News reports slip past, images of desert explosions, screaming faces and fire drift by as this white man or that talks along, trying to keep profitable parameters on the whole mess. Boundaries are being stretched or removed and replaced with no consideration of the impact. It is hard to know where any of us—any of this—stands.

That’s why I’m floating, staring up through the underbrush of time and at the accepted reality. I’m done with reality. I’m just living, and this life is not anything like what we were taught to expect in school. I can’t remember much of the pointless past, and what I can is played back to me like a weird, short film in blotchy colors or black and white. Life exists mostly at night, waterlogged by Hollywood’s crap, the politician’s elastic desire for more power and the general ridiculousness of what we’re told is real. I’m bobbing up and down, half submerged in this sea of shit and life and breathing and everything else.

I’m pretty sure I’m in my thirties, as far as that goes, married, no kids, a job I don’t care about, a few friends. I drink and eat and talk automatically and sometimes say the wrong things, but usually it’s good and everyone on that level thinks I’m just like them and they’re happy. Not threatened. All that’s “up there.” “Down here,” I’m floating around, looking for some light to shine through and down into my eyes. God, are you out there? We know death is with us. That much is certain.

But, I am not depressed, just different. I’m traveling through a different space with different perception. It’s lonely, but occasionally others float by and we see one another and are happy to know we’re not alone in this murky life. But sometimes, everything clicks into Hollywood focus and I’m there, a movie character up, on the ground, seeing things clear and true. That doesn’t happen much, so when it does, and I can remember it, I record it.

This was the last time.

I was on the flat shore of the river, just down the hill from my place in the country. There’s a bend in the river there and the big, brown water flows around it slowly and it’s dusk now and the leaves have only begun to turn. The air temperature is good, but swimming weather is mostly past. I’m wondering what’s going on across the bank. It’s always so quiet, but not tonight. There are a couple dozen sheep being watched by several dogs. The dogs are barking, keeping the sheep together, as all of them take an occasional sip from the slow river.

The dogs are all Black Labs. I’ve known a lot of these dogs, they float around sometimes too, so I whistle and a couple of the barkers swim across the river. The current pulls them off course a bit, but they make it to my bank and wag tails and trot over. There are three of them. A couple others remain on the other side, working with the sheep and looking warily across the water.

The dogs over here are wagging their tails so hard that their whole back ends are shaking. I pet them, they’re good, they stop barking, they sniff me, then they’ve had enough, jump in the river and return to their friends. Maybe there was another whistle? Maybe I heard that, but with all the barking, I couldn’t tell.

I sat down on the bank and thought about other things. It’s peaceful here, so it’s easy to think. I see the wagging tail of the last dog, as the sheep have been moved up the bank. The barking grows faint as the night comes on harder. Eventually, all that’s left of the are a bunch of muddy footprints and far-off barking and bleating.

I dozed off for a while. The chill air woke me and across the river I can see the tinkle of a lantern and hear some voices. It must be whoever is tending the dogs that are tending the sheep. The lanterns are down river a bit, heading to a campsite on a sandy spot close to the river. I’m hungry, so I head back up to my place for dinner. I figure I’ll come back to survey the situation later. My wife was happy to see me and we ate some baked fish and potatoes, watched television, then she went to bed. She is a warm smudge in a flannel nightgown. We touched for a moment, then I looked at the television and it’s magic doorway to oblivion. I was almost pulled back out. But I remembered my scouting mission, put on a sweatshirt, and marched back down the bank to my observation post on the shore.

Two guys were there, finishing up the dinner mess they had made for themselves and several boys, who were accompanying them. I could see some Boy Scout outfits, but not on the whole. So I figured it must be some scout types on a freelance mission to get these sheep to somewhere from somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I know where either somewhere is. I don’t always know what’s going on around here and the people, well, the people over there are obviously living in a different world.

The men are now off to one side, drinking some liquor. I can smell it from here. Not very Boy Scout like, that. There are, to my count, five scouts sitting around the bonfire. It’s fairly far away, maybe 80 yards, but I can see the orange firelight on the faces of the boys opposite my bank.

Boy, that looks fun. What a quintessential moment for those kids! Sitting around the fire pit, out on an adventure, dinner is over and you’re spinning yarns about bears and ghosts and owls on an early autumn evening. If only the river were a little warmer. That would be the final thing, a nice swim in this muddy old river.

I live in the country now, but back in time, back on the surface of my old reality, I lived in the suburbs with my parents and some other kids who have since floated away. We lived in a basement of a suburban rambler in front of a television that never stopped blaring us into whatever we would become. Father was working, making money to keep us kids in front of that machine and its Gilligan’s Island and Hogan’s Heroes dreams. I guess he figured we were safe. It was a better life than he had growing up. But who was he? I can’t see his face anymore. Just a shadow that occasionally drifts by with the other shadows.

We never went camping. Sitting around a fire? Fishing? That was for other kids. Kids like those across the water. I never knew people like that.

There’s something I don’t trust about those two guys over there, off to the side. It looks like they’ve finished their liquor. The liquor smell is almost visible and it trails them as they make the short walk to their tent. I can hear them quietly talking to each other, then the boys, giving them a dismissive good night wave before they stumble to the bigger tent.

Suddenly, I am tired of being over here by myself. Why am I so isolated? So alone? I know an old log I can cross, so I decide to head over to the scout camp. Maybe talk to those people, see what the hell they’re doing over there. Where are they headed with those sheep? Where are they from?

The walk to the narrow part of the river is short and the moon is out so crossing the log is easy. Even though it’s only taken a minute to cross the narrows, it’s still likely the whole camp will be in their tents before I get there. If that’s the case, I’ll just head back or maybe rustle around a little. Scare them a bit, give the kids something to talk about later.

I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea. I am not a creep, so I’m hoping those dogs, wherever they are, don’t get a whiff of me and start barking. Though I know those couple dogs, the others were suspicious. Oh well, I guess the dogs have a right to be. I am walking over to their masters’ campsite in the dark, under some white moonlight, to possibly scare the crap out of the campers. “Maybe this is a bad idea. I’m going to head back,” I say to myself as I slip on some rocks which tumble down, off the rocky trail, loud, a couple even hit the water. I’m stuck now. I can talk to them, explain what I’m doing, ask them some questions or I can scare them. Though I don’t mean them any harm by it, I decide on the scaring.

I take a few more steps down the last of the rocks leading into the sandy part of the campsite and, man, I’m too close. I’m in their camp. Flashlights go on in the tent that the boys are in. I can see shadows inside. A zipper goes up and with it I go up too. I’m committed now. I’m floating above the ground, looking first at the terrified faces of the boys still in their opened tent, then over to the tent of the drunken men. There’s some angry rustling coming from within, but no light. That zipper goes up, but no one emerges from the tent’s black hole.

I’m feeling like a jerk now as I float over the sandy point. Floating takes so much energy and it’s all I can do to maintain my hover. I wish I could say something like, “Hey, don’t be too afraid. I don’t mean to scare you. It’s just that your campsite looked like so much fun and you should know that people can actually float like this. No one will ever tell that it’s possible. They don’t want you to know, but hey, look at me right now!” I couldn’t say that. I could barely think it at the time. All I could do was put off a faint golden glow and float a little further out, so no one would hit me or touch me.

Boy, those kids were afraid and I felt bad and was wondering how this would all end. I was losing energy and should probably be getting back to my place. Then one of the men emerged but he just sat there with his mouth hanging open. The other was just a white head barely visible in the mouth of the tent.

The boys were also open-mouthed scared. Then one of them moved up past the others whose arms lamely tried to hold him back. He broke out and yelled, “You get out of here now! Go on, get out of here!” Then he picked up a shovel and started towards me. I wanted to say, “Way to go, kid! Don’t be afraid of a helpless old floater like me!” But, of course, I couldn’t. Instead I drifted over the water some more to where I knew it was too deep for him to stand and attack me with that shovel. I was wondering what they were doing with such a big shovel when the brave kid threw it right at me. I shot back further over the deeper waters and the shovel sliced through the wet air then sank into the river, the top part of its handle still visible just below the water’s surface. “Everyone, grab some rocks. He’s scared,” the kid commanded and the other boys, seeing me flee from the shovel, were heartened a little and grabbed some rocks and started pitching them towards me. The noise had aroused the dogs, whose barking was getting closer. I wondered if the sheep, left unguarded, would get away. The men did nothing, the one never left the tent and the other stood still, impotent and afraid.

The boys were only about twelve or thirteen, so their arms weren’t any good. None of the rocks even came close. But boy, had I screwed this deal up. Instead of having some civil conversation and telling tales of baseball games and Huck Finn and all of that, I was stuck out here floating above the river, running out of energy fast, downstream from my place. I could see a couple of the dogs swimming towards me, their little wakes lit by the moon. I could feel the cold of the water creeping up into my suspended body. I wouldn’t last much longer.

By now, I had drifted down far from the campsite, though the light I was putting off was still visible. A shrill whistle went up and the two dogs swimming towards me, dutifully turned in formation back towards the campsite. The fascicle of scouts and dogs was shaking, jumping triumphant on the bank and the men I couldn’t see. I was proud of the kids and ashamed of myself. I had to get over it pretty fast and figure my way home. I needed everything I had just to stay afloat and make my modest plans. I stared at my hand in slow motion and saw the glow had mostly faded out. There was a slight breeze over the river’s surface, which sent me further off course, and as I turned to judge the distance I would need to cover to get back to my bank, I knew it was trouble. Not only could I not float home like this, I was also too tired to swim upstream, all that way and past the scout’s campsite. I couldn’t endure the dogs, and another one of their defensive actions and surely they would be on the lookout.

Instead, I calmed myself down and let it go and fell into the water. I had expected the water to be cold, instead it felt good and alive as it swirled past my body like phlogiston. My light was out now and I drifted downstream at an angle to my side of the river. I paused a moment in the clean water then I began slipping back into myself.

It was a blank walk home. I suppose I showered and warmed up, put my clothes in the dryer and went into my bed, next to the shadow that is my wife. But I don’t remember any of that. This is the last whole memory I have. Just now I’ve got to…