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Sliding Rock


ISSUE:  Summer 1987
I never saw my blind uncle
  without a cigar, it was his ashy cane,
a cheap way of keeping the world
  blinded, breathless, at shouting distance.

One night on our porch he inhaled
  fiercely, his square face an open furnace,
    and billowed, “Know what I’d like
    to see again before I die? Sliding Rock.”

And so we went, one Labor Day,
  across the county steeping in rich fumes
from Enka’s plant, the nylon made
  to smooth the legs of ladies in fine homes,

climbing above our stale valley
  into the old Vanderbilt forest. “It’s coming!”
    My uncle stuck out his head to smell
    like a pickup hound. “Everything’s getting cool.”

We parked where the Davidson thinned
  and spilled down a slick slope of bedrock
bigger than a barn roof, ending
  in a deep pool at the foot, hemlock-dark,

cold enough to give you the bends
  at the bottom of each slide, a body-shocking
    baptism by immersion. “This is it,”
    my uncle said to the sound. “Let’s get undressed.”

I helped him into trunks, a pair
  my father molted when he was still single.
My uncle kept his shades and cigar,
  a fresh one trimmed and lit with much ritual

there in the slimy bathhouse, I was sure
  people would laugh at him, unnaturally pale
    as a cavern-fish, when we descended
    the stones to the holy river. But no one did.

Teenagers restless as otters
  were fluming down the heart of Sliding Rock,
ignoring the insidious potholes
  that mined the limits of their breakneck track.

Summer lingered, but the water
  felt like a midwinter draft, glacial, shocking.
    My uncle seized me, shouting, “Hey!”
    I turned back toward the bank, but he said, “Wait.

Let’s go.” My father waved from the pool
  below. I sat my rigid uncle in the current
and whispered, “I’m right behind you,”
  and shoved him like a dogsled, and we went

down that hill quick as Eskimos
  past the rooted audience
    of our families
    and trees

through water colder than any word,
  my uncle dropping his cigar onto his legs,
me clinging to his back like a curse,
  both of us exploding into my father’s chest

and underwater, once, twice, a third
  time, forgetting how to breathe, my uncle’s head
    snapping backwards like a hooked bass
    with his blank eyesockets and his wide dead eyes.

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