Two Kayakers

Picture credit: Aaron Burden

On the bank of the bayou, surrounded by the lazy buzz of cicadas, he sipped from his gallon-sized jug of water and considered that he might try seeking out work in a kitchen. He had after all always liked his restaurant jobs – the cooks were irascible and proud and the bartenders would give him a free drink or two at the end of his shift. He would do things right this time, he told himself.

From around the bend, he saw two kayaks emerge. Both of them yellow, piloted by a man and a woman. In the enveloping dusk, their boats looked like two overgrown fireflies. The kayakers laughed loudly as they splashed each other. He assumed they were in love.

He’d been asked a few times over the years whether he’d ever been in love. He had not, at least not in that way. He was married once, sure, but that was more an arrangement of convenience – and perhaps carnality – than anything else. He gazed at the kayakers and thought they were especially ebullient in their mutual affection.

The boats angled to a floating dock about twenty yards from where he sat. The man hopped out of his boat and tied his vessel to one of the steel posts on the dock’s edge. A moment later, the woman did the same. On the two-lane road that ran parallel to the bayou, a car zipped by. Then it was quiet again.

“I’m starving,” the woman said, and he realized she was quite young and quite pretty.

“Let’s see what they’ve got around here,” said the man, who appeared to be about her age and was pale and husky, as he tapped on his phone.

Surveying their sleek clothing and titanic backpacks, he surmised that they were paddling the length of the bayou.

“I’m not getting much service,” the man said.

The woman exhaled. “Great!”

For two years he had worked as a kayak guide, taking schoolchildren and families and couples just like this one on short expeditions. He would point out the alligators and tell them about how this very bayou, called Teche, was for a time the Mississippi River’s main course. The people would respond with oohs and aahs when he explained how the river’s sediment deposits cause the Mississippi to change course every thousand years, a process called deltaic switching. He was thinking back on those tours when the couple approached him.

“We’re on the hunt for a restaurant or a gas station,” the man said.

“We need some lunch plus some food to camp tonight,” the woman added. The man glanced at her quickly.

“Any help at all would be huge,” the man said.

He told them there was a gas station about a mile away. “You continue on this road and then take a right at the stop sign, and then a left at the next one.” He pointed to his truck and offered to drive them. He bought the vehicle in 2007, when he’d hit on a little money. Now one of his front lights was busted and the paint was peeling. “It’s no problem,” he told them.

“That’s OK,” the man said, “we like the walk.”

He imagined they must be tired from paddling, so he offered them some of his water or a beer from his truck. Again, they declined.

“Well, what are your names,” he asked them.

“I’m Laura,” the woman said, “and this is Tom.”

He’d had a friend named Tom once, a wiry guy who sold insurance and spent every Sunday casting out for finfish and whatever else he could turn up. Tom fancied himself a wily man; he spent his nights in barrooms telling tales, silhouetted by Christmas lights and neon signs. Once, Tom had told him that the world was built by hucksters like themselves. Except those hucksters had managed to get rich.

“It’s a pleasure, Laura and Tom,” he said. “My name’s–”

“Maybe one beer would be OK,” Tom said. As he spoke, Laura leaned into him.

He led them to his truck, which was parked on the shoulder of the road, and handed Tom a beer from a cooler.

“Thanks,” Tom said as he placed his backpack on the ground. “Are you from around here?”

“I am,” he replied.

“I grew up in D.C.,” Tom said. “But now I’m living in New Orleans.”

“But New Orleans is a few hours east. What brings you here?”

“Oh, we came to kayak for a few days,” Tom said. “We parked in Port Barre and are going until we hit Breaux Bridge. Then we’ll hitch our way back I guess.”

Laura again leaned into Tom. It struck him that perhaps he made his new companions nervous. He often had that effect on people, not that he could understand why. It got him fired from more than a few jobs. That and his nerves.

He tried to think what would loosen them up. “How about some music?” he said, miming a cha-cha. He was too bulky these days to cha-cha with any grace; as a younger man he could move with the best of them.

Laura flashed a thin smile. “Yeah, OK, music would be great.”

He walked to the front of his car, stuck his key in the ignition, and fidgeted with the radio dial until he landed on a station playing the Beach Boys. Because his truck’s windows were already wide open, he could hear them whispering to one another.

“It’s a story,” Tom said.

“It’s stupid is what it is.”

“Fine, it’s a stupid story.”

She sighed. “Give me a kiss, you idiot.”

He glanced at his rearview mirror and saw their heads tilted awkwardly as they embraced. It reaffirmed his belief that he had never known love. But this display – this made him feel wonderful.

“Anyone care to dance?” he asked as he strode back to them. There was a time, when he used to go with his friend Tom to the bars in town, that he loved to dance with women at bars.  

Tom chuckled and only said, “I don’t know about that.”

“Well, OK then,” he said, leaning against the bed of his truck. Cicadas filled the silence; dusk was growing heavier around them. “Did you like Port Barre?”

“We didn’t really see much,” Laura said.

“We got there and launched our kayaks. It was kind of small I guess–”

“But it was charming.”

“Yeah, it was really nice.”

Laura laughed but he didn’t know why. Tom handed her his beer for a sip. “So, what do you do?”

He wasn’t sure how to respond. He thought for a moment he ought to tell them about the bad thing he’d done. No, no, he decided, that would only frighten them. Instead, he said, “I used to take kayakers out on the bayou.”

Tom brightened. “You must know the area really well then.”

Yes, he thought, yes, I do. He used to fish with his brother in these waters. It was on this very bank that he had proposed to his ex-wife, and it was here, years later, that he did the bad thing. “I do know it,” he answered Tom, and then, inexplicably, “But do you?”

Laura reached for the can of beer and again laughed though no one had made a joke.

“For our sake, I hope we do,” she said. “We better get going, Tom. We don’t know when the gas station closes.

By now the sky was almost totally dark. “Why don’t I drive you?” he said. “You shouldn’t be walking on the road at night.”

“No, thanks, we like the walk.”

“Really, it’s OK.”

“We could use the walk after kayaking all day.”

“Ha, ha! Isn’t that the truth?”

He thought back to the bad thing he’d done all those years ago. “Why don’t I at least drive behind you,” he asked, “to make sure nobody comes flying down the road?”

Tom crushed the beer can and shoved it into one of his backpack’s pockets. “That’s all right, but thanks–”

“We need to move our legs a little bit.”

“But thanks again for the beer! And it was great meeting you!”

“Yeah, so nice to meet you,” Laura said as she shouldered her bag too. “Hopefully we see you on the water one of these days.”

“Totally,” Tom said, “and we owe you a beer next time.”

He said all right and that it was nice to have the company for a while and reminded them that it was a right at the stop sign and then left at the next one. They nodded and Tom fished in his backpack to light a cigarette, which for a moment made him resemble someone telling a ghost story around a campfire. He would have loved a cigarette and it made him just a little sad that Tom didn’t offer one.

He watched them walk past him and his truck and away from the water until, in the shroud of night, he could no longer see them. Then he moved into his truck and turned down the radio so that he was engulfed again by the sounds of the bayou.

Finally he shifted the gear selector into drive and buckled his seatbelt. He figured he ought to follow behind, to make sure his new friends didn’t lose their way.

Max Ufberg

Max Ufberg is a writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Oxford American, among other publications.

Max Ufberg is a writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Oxford American, among other publications.

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