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
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.