Chapter 23: The Lonesome Crowded West, Part 2 – Dad Bods

The livestock vastly outnumbered the locals during my morning run. However, none of those animals came close to affording me the type of courtesy received from each car as I ran several miles up a gravel road on yet another gorgeous, sunny day in Montana. Each person who passed greeted me with a smile and a friendly wave, a pleasant rarity for someone from the city, and the same mountainous landscape that had captivated me a day earlier was again on full display, overlooking the exotically named ranches on the outskirts of town. I had a good feeling we were in for another adventurous day in Pony.

Bill was already hard at work fixing the finer details of his stone-made grill upon my return. It was pertinent that it be designed to his meticulous specifications—that night’s dinner depended on it. I walked around the yard, noticing a higher than normal weed to grass ratio, and remembered that Lea had even made mention of her dissatisfaction over the abundance of weeds that had suddenly appeared since their last visit. Looking for ways to be helpful, and being that I was already a sweaty mess, I cracked open an ice-cold Rockstar from the fridge and went to work.

“Where’s Gretch?” I asked Bill as I tugged at the base of a large weed deeply rooted into the ground. It was imperative that I pull both the weed and root in order to ensure the weed’s elimination once and for all.

“Haven’t seen her since I got up?”

“Hmm, that’s weird. I wonder what’s going on?” With one last pull, the weed released its grip on the soil, causing me to nearly fall to my backside from an excessive amount of unabated force once the roots gave way. I gathered my balance and tossed the weed, adding it to an already impressive looking pile.

“Hey guys, what’s going on, heheh?” We turned to investigate the familiar voice coming from the deck. Gretch stood there in her pajamas, holding a freshly opened can of Coors light. “Were you guys having a snoring contest or something last night? I’m lucky I got any sleep, haha,” she continued, letting out a shameful, cringe-worthy chuckle in the process. I stared back at her unimpressed with the back of my wrist resting on my hip while I used the other free wrist to wipe away the combination of sweat and dirt that covered my forehead. “Gee, it looks like you guys are breaking a little sweat. It’s about time, heehee!” Bill kept shaking his head, doing his best to ignore. Like me, he was growing much more exasperated with each subsequent syllable leaving her mouth. I worried that it would soon hit a breaking point, and if she wasn’t careful, she’d be on the receiving end of a major eruption. “Well, you guys are sure doing a great job… sort of. Keep up the good work!” Gretch walked back inside (thank God) while Bill and I turned the other check and went back to work on the yard. There was just too much that had to be done in order to get the Dutcher Estate into tip-top condition, are number one priority for the present, and getting worked up over Gretch wasn’t going to do us any favors.

A few seconds later she bursted back out of the cabin, unprovoked. “Ok, ok, I’ll help you with a couple weeds. Sheesh, no need to get all worked up over it.”

Another half hour of weed pulling and grill tinkering provided us with enough satisfaction to head in for a mid-morning breakfast. Bill and Gretch grabbed a bagel that Lea had toasted for them. I opted to pound the rest of my Rockstar, grab a change of clothes and claim first dibs on a shower.

 

***

 

A deflated piece of plastic film hit me in the chest as I stepped out of the bathroom, fresh and clean, right off of a hot shower. Bill looked at me with a mysterious grin spread across his face, the assumed origin of the plastic projectile. “What is this?” I asked.

“Blow her up. We’re floating the Madison today.”

I examined the tubes solid, pink background that had outlines of flowers drawn over it, obviously a product intended for 6-year-old girls. “How do you expect me to float down the river in this?”

“Don’t worry, me and Gretch have the same kind.”

“But I’m like 100 pounds heavier than you guys!”

“Well, we were going to get some bigger tubes, but these were only 97 cents each!” mentioned Gretch, gleeful in her response.

“Yea, no way we were gonna pay 4 bucks for the other ones!”

“Well gee… thanks a lot.” I shook my head in disbelief and began the arduous task of blowing through the plastic valve on the side of the tube.

“Are you guys almost ready? I need to take care of some things around the cabin while you’re gone,” said Lea.

“Well, me and Bill are,” said Gretch.

“Wait, I still have to get my shorts on!” I pleaded.

“Well, hurry up then,” said Bill.

“Here, finish blowing this up then.”

“No way! You slobbered all over it!” yelled Gretch. “It’s got your germs all over the place!”

“Just do it really quickly,” suggested Bill. I began to blow, really quickly, just like Bill suggested.

“You guys, I keep blowing, but nothing’s happening!”

“Just keep it up, it’ll start!”

“But, I’m… I’m starting to get a little dizzy—“

“Less talk, more blow!” snapped Gretch.

“She’s got a point. The more you talk, the less air that goes into the tube.”

“But I think I’m hypervent—“

“Zack! Just blow!” blurted Gretch again. I blew, fast and hard, and the faster and harder I blew, the faster and harder feeling left my body. “Geez, we’ll never get out of here at this rate.”

“Yea, Zack. I hate to say it, but you are blowing kind of slow.”

“Kind of slow? More like I could make a quilt faster than this slow.” It was yet another baseless insult hurled from Gretch’s mouth. My face turned beat red, wanting to respond so fiercely, yet bound by the pressure of blowing the stupid tube up in a timely manner, partly for Lea’s sake, but mostly motivated to put an end to the abuse.

By the time I had a fully inflated tube, their words were barely decipherable, my body a mere seconds from collapse. I struggled to cap the tube shut before falling onto a chair, dropping the tube on the ground beside me. “Not bad,” said Gretch during her examination. “Not good either, but not bad. I guess it’ll do. Now go get your shorts on. We’re already late.”

I looked up at Bill in desperation, a giant plea for mercy. Please.

“Zack, I’m sorry but we… we gotta go!”

“Did you fill the backpack up with beer Bill?” asked Gretch.

“I thought Zack was going to do that.”

“ZACK!”

 

***

 

We traveled 7 miles up the Madison River from the recovery ramp where the Benz was parked, looking out at the rock formations scaling the sides of the river and the 100’s of other patrons who braved the float. The intention was to make our way the entire distance back to the car by tube. I prayed we had enough beer to last the entire journey.

“Ok, you kids have fun. Do you have everything you need?” asked Lea. “Don’t forget to put on sunscreen!”

“We wont,” I replied while we grabbed the necessities out of the car and stripped down to our shorts. “Bill, hand me a cold one, and while you’re at it, lather me up!” Bill reached into his backpack and pulled out a bottle of sunscreen and a ‘cold one,’ which wasn’t really that cold anymore.

“Ok, I’ll see you boys back at the cabin. Hurry up now. Gretch is waiting,” said Lea before leaving us to set sail on our voyage down the Madison River.

“Ok, get my back and then I’ll get yours.” I told Bill. I turned around and felt a cold mist fall over my backside. Bill handed me the spray bottle and I returned the favor.

“Give yourself a good spray and then hand it back so I can get my belly,” he said.

“Haha, you’re gonna need a lot of sunscreen for that then, heheh.”

“Speak for yourself tubby!”

“Who you callin’ tubby, porky?”

Porky? Look at you.”

“Look at you!

We looked down at our bellies that bulged over our shorts before giving each other a long stare down, starting from the bare belly and up to each other’s blank face, shocked and appalled at the sight in front of us. Two weeks worth of burgers, brats, beer and booze had taken its toll, and the results were devastating.

“We… we have…”

“Dad bodies…”

“You guys coming or what?” Gretch’s voice was faint as she called out to us, already wading in the river.

“…Yea, Gretch. Be right there…” said Bill. We walked out into the water, our heads and bodies buried in shame; a shame that was buried deeper and deeper with each sip of beer, our solution, our temporary escape… the primary contributor to our ultimate demise.

 

***

 

“Hey, this river isn’t as deep as I thought it’d be.” I said. “I’m barely to my shins!”

“Maybe that’s why people like floating it so much. I guess you’re not gonna die if you get too hammered and fall out of your tube!”

“Good point.” I placed my tube down and sat in the middle. “Hold on Bill. I think I’m stuck.”

“I’m stuck to. Here, just push off and find the current.”

“I’m trying, but I think I’m too heavy! I just keep on sinking and hitting the ground!”

“I knew we should’ve gotten the 4 dollar tubes!”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Gretch thought it was a waste of money.”

“Well, where is she right now?” We looked forward. 100 feet down the river was Gretch, relaxed and floating with ease, having been picked up by the current and rapidly pulling away from us. She nodded at us, smiling a large smile that bordered mockery.

“GRETCH!”

 

***

 

“Hey Bill, what’s this green stuff at the bottom?”

“It looks like algae, or an underwater Christmas tree or something. But it’s like—alive…”

“Gross. I dare you to touch it?”

“Screw that! You touch it.”

“It’s too far down. I can’t.”

“Look you guys, it’s not that bad,” said Gretch, holding up a long piece of the slimy green stuff she ripped off the bottom. It wrapped around her forearm and dangled off her elbow, flapping around like a live tentacle.

“Oh Gretch, that’s disgusting!” I yelled. “Bill, hand me another beer. I can’t handle this.”

Bill reached out, holding in his hand a fresh can of Coors Light to meet my outstretched hand. “Hold on, you’re pulling away.”

“Well, what’s the matter?”

“I’m stuck on a rock. Stop for a second.”

In my path the water turned a shade lighter, indicating that shallower water was up ahead. I steered my tube towards it, eyeing down at the bottom for a rock to hold onto. The color of the surface went from blue to brown as the water became shallower. I threw my legs down, ready to anchor myself into position. “Almost ready Bill, I think I have something.” I looked down, feeling a slight tingling sensation brushing against my toes. “What the—“ The ground was no longer a rocky brown, but a solid sheet of living, parasitic, soul-sucking green fungus. “Uh, Bill… I don’t think I can stop right now…”

“What do you mean? It looks shallow where you are—“

“Um, dude, more like I think I’m in some real trouble.” The water became shallower and shallower as I nervously looked from side to side, surrounded by the slimy, green, plant-like invasive species at bottom of the river. “Uwha!” I screamed as I felt its appendages brush against my bottom, edging my backside up out of the middle of the tube. “It’s all around me man!”

“Just stay above the water, you’ll make it!”

“I’m trying man! It’s brushing against my tube!” My breaths increased in frequency and severity. I flung my legs straight out in front of me, raised high above the raft and pushed my body up off the tube, supported by my elbows, anything I could do to keep away from the field of mutant mold lying below. The friction between tube and surface became rougher and rougher, decelerating the tube towards a slower pace. “Oh God Bill, it’s slowing… it’s slowing… it’s—“

It all happened so quickly. The green scraped against the bottom of the tube like Freddy Kruger’s claw across a wall, his signature gesture before slaughtering his next, unsuspecting victim. It brought the tube to a crawl, until it was only me, stuck and stranded, and wedged atop a peak of green, solidly formed mucus. “Bill… help.” I leaned my elbow against one side, a tactic that put a heavy amount of stress on one side of the tube, hoping the pressure would create enough force for a press off, an all too risky proposition; an act of desperation, for Bill was taking way too long. “HELP—“

The tube shot out from underneath me like a fist slamming on a tube of toothpaste. My body hit the water with a splash, sending my back through the barrier of water and onto the bed of fungus. There were thousands of them, crawling, clinging onto my back with their slimy appendages, sucking the life and infecting me with a grotesque poison of which there was no cure. They worked their way up my back and onto my sides, where my abdominal muscles once lay. Soon they would wrap around my torso, my legs; my entire body, turning me into a mutant pile of scum that would forever dwell at the bottom of the Madison River.

In the middle of my turmoil, a glimpse of every tragic event that had ever occurred in my life up to that point flashed through my head: Failing my Driver’s Ed test, my date to the senior prom barfing her brains out and not making it to the dance, falling off a 12-foot rock onto my head and almost dying, waking up in intensive care and having the doctor remove the catheter, watching the Shi—Seahawks beat the Packers three times in a row… but this—this one second, down at the bottom of the Madison river amongst a company of a thousand jumbo-sized, protozoa-like creatures… this was the worst—hands down.

“OH GOD BILL, GET IT OFF! GET IT OFF!” I yelled and screamed, rolling around in the water as if I were trying to put out a fire. “It’s all over me! What do I—“

“Quit rolling around, you’re getting it all over you! Get up and—YOUR TUBE!” All of a sudden I was up on my feet, driving forward, powering out of the vile platform I had mistakenly stumbled upon with a new, immediate purpose in life: get the hell out of there. Nothing else was of importance.

The water level dropped and I stepped forward, sinking into the river, face first. As quick as I was ungraceful, I popped back up, pushing through the current, only to be thrown back down into the shallow depths of the Madison once again, and again, until my body waded against the rough current above my knees, looking onward at a pink ring of polyurethane radiating against the pastels of the rocky Madison River landscape and accelerating several feet away from me with the pulling current. A new goal simmered into my head, entrapping my mind to prepare for another mad dash. I pushed off the rocky floor and high-stepped it down the river, running as fast as I could to catch the tube that was in peril of being forever lost to the mercy of the treacherous Madison. I drove through the river, my legs pushing against the current and my belly fluidly jiggling up and down, left to right; man versus a nature whose viscosity was hell bent on holding me firmly in its control. Nearly an arms length away, I reached out for the tube, only to swat at a handful of air. I trotted forward, but the force of water, now past my thighs was just too much. Spent from the hardest 100-yard dash of my life, I could only watch as my prized 97 cent possession floated away to the whims of the roaring Madison. “I didn’t work this hard for—screw this!”

I bent down, expelling every working muscle left inside of me and lunged into the air. I dove forward with my body spread, hoping meet a bed of soft plastic, but realistically anticipating a belly flop. Below me was water and rock, and then a mix of pink and white overtook my direct line of vision. My arms, head, and upper torso fell through the donut hole, flipping the tube over and under my body, and together we floated down the next stretch of the river. Finding myself back on top in the proper tubing position was a struggle just as difficult, and even more time consuming.

After several minutes of precise positioning I was back in business, my arms and legs sprawled out across the edges of the tube and my butt sunk into the middle of the hole, looking as though my entire body was being sucked down by an underwater tractor beam, an unforgiving weight that left the tube deformed—Homer Simpson style. I panted, and wheezed between spurts of water coughed up from my lungs. Looking clumsy was the least of my concerns at this point.

Another tube of lime green and white floated up next to me. I tipped my head over, also laying victim to the effects of the tractor beam, giving the impression that I had been prescribed with a heavy dose of anesthetics. It was Gretch, looking down upon me with an aura of comical condescendence. She was trying not to laugh; I know she was. I pressed my head forward, foregoing any further contact, and held my mouth taut over my tense face.

“Looks like you need a beer,” she said to me after heavily studying my depleted demeanor. I afforded her another look. She held out her hand. In it was an open Coors Light. Don’t fall for it. It’s empty. She’s playing a trick; I know she is. Another few seconds of hesitation went by. Ah, what the hell?

To my surprise (and pleasure), the beer was mostly full. I pressed it to my lips, using both of my hands as a little child would a sippy cup and took a giant swig, an action that would’ve produced a smile if it weren’t for my severe state of exhaustion. I let out a great sigh of relief and tipped my head back.

“I mean, it wasn’t like you really need a beer or anything with that dad belly and all—“

“Oh, shut up Gretch!”

 

***

 

In time we all managed to meet up and float down the river as a friendly trio, and for miles, we held ourselves together in close proximity, talking the issues of the day and marveling at the natural architecture surrounding us. Flat meadows of brush, level with the waterline stood side by side high, rock walls with ridged edges against the river, serving as coves for the weary tube traveler around each river bend. For over an hour we basked in the sun, so relaxed and so full of carelessness that the logical thought of recoating ourselves with sunscreen dissolved into oblivion, joining the rest of the worries in the world that were obliterated by a blissful drift down a short passage of the Madison River in the heart of rugged Montana.

“Hey Bill, can you pass me another beer?” asked Gretch.

“This is the last one,” he replied, holding up a full one above his head in the ‘cheers’ position.

“It can’t be—that’s impossible!”

“You’ve been drinkin’ em all up. There’s no more left!”

Gretch hesitated for a moment, a switch of tactics. “Please Bill, can I have it?”

“Dude, Gretch, I’ve had like two, maybe three this whole ride, not to mention you dropped the last one in the water and wasted the whole thing.” It seemed as though her plan had failed.

“Just… let me have a little bit.”

“Sorry Gretch, this one’s all mine,” replied Bill, motioning his beer around with his hands like he was about to open it.

“Just let me see it, for a second.” She stuck her hand out, reaching over towards him.

“Stop it Gretch!” She didn’t stop. She kept grabbing, working hard to snatch the beer from his grip.

“Gretch, be careful! You’re going to fall out of your tube!” She didn’t listen, insistent on the beer in Bill’s possession, thinking by pressing hard on one side on the tube, she could successfully balance herself on the tube while fighting for the beer at the same time.

“Bill, gimme—“

With one big swoop, the tube slipped out from under her, flying forward as she made a daring lunge for the last full can of Coors Light. Into the water she went, sending a harrowing splash that resounded down the depths of the Madison. I stuck my hand out as the tube flew past me—well out of reach. It blew down the river, picked up by an aggressive current and gaining speed with no signs of stopping.

“Haha Gretch, serves you right,” said Bill. “You got greedy and look what you got, another mile to go with no tube! Sucks to be you…” he rambled on with the insults as Gretch stood there, watching her beloved tube as it was thrown across the river by the rapids and bashed against the protruding rocks of the Madison, unrelenting with its penchant of sending light objects down the river and thrashing them about all along the way, something I had witnessed first hand. Her face turned droopy and her arms went limp against the rushing current of the river, stuck in a downward spiral leading into depression as it sucked every ounce of life and motivation from her defeated body. It wouldn’t be long before a swell of tears broke through the barrier around her eyes.

“Don’t even think about it—why are you thinking about it?” My heart tore and twisted at the sight, like staring at a little boy as he watched his puppy run away from home. “She screwed up, it’s her own damn fault!” I watched the tube move down the river, 200 feet away… 250 feet away… 300 feet away. I looked back at Gretch; her demeanor took a turn for the worst. “That tube meant so much to her, and she’d be devastated if it was forever lost. It’s now or never—it’s never! She doesn’t deserve it!” Bill continued his relentless attacks on Gretch, only exacerbating the situation. I shifted my head down river, then back up river, and down again.

“Ah, hell!” I set my feet and dove forward onto my tube, paddling and kicking against the rough and shallow waters of the Madison in pursuit of a tube that was thought by conventional wisdom to be long lost. “I can’t believe I’m doing this… again!” There was no thought of the shear difficulty of retrieving such a silly object that for some reason meant so much to Gretch, or the amount of stress and strain that would be exerted over my body throughout the arduous journey; my concern was directed towards one goal—reclaiming that stupid 97 cent piece of plastic.

 

***

 

They emerged around the bend a quarter mile up the river. My dripping, wet body stood, battered but not broken in a steady pant, in through the nose and out through the mouth, focused on my two companions making their way towards my position. In one hand was Gretch’s tube, held high above my head, a prized trophy, a representation of will and determination over nature and adversity. The other tube was wedged against the weight of my body and the rolling river, finding comfortable leverage as I sat through the donut hole, waiting for them to finally catch up. “I got it!”

“Bring it back over here,” hollered Gretch. No offer to come to me and pick it up? Not even a simple offer of thanks? She expects me to walk all the way back there for her? News flash to Gretch: I didn’t even do this for her! In fact, the only reason I did this was so our vacation wouldn’t be ruined with her stupid pouting and cursing all over the place. This was for us, and that’s it! I don’t want to put up with that crap! I’m dealing with it! If this is how it’s gonna be, I’m not coming down anymore! And she’s got another thing comin’ if she things I’m coming back to her!

“No Gretch, you can come and get your tube yourself,” I yelled back, the distance between us calling for an unintentional screaming match.

“But I don’t want to walk that far. I might spill my beer.” Oh gee, she got her beer after all. How convenient.

“I’m not walking back there after all of that. You come here. You come here now!”

“What’s the big deal? It’s only a couple of feet. You walked all the way there, and now you can’t walk back? Sounds pretty lazy to me.”

“Gretch, I’m not going to ask you again. Come over here and get your tube.”

“Don’t be selfish… Please…”

I couldn’t take it any more. I stood up, using what was left of my worn-out body to send her a final, stern message.

“HEY! YOU GET OVER HERE! YOU GET OVER HERE AND SIT ON YOUR TUBE!” My head shook, my eyes beamed with madness, and the veins bulged out of my neck while my arms pointed in all different directions, directing orders just in case my words didn’t get the point across. “GET OVER HERE GRETCH! I DID THIS FOR YOU! I DID THIS FOR YOU! I SWAM ALL THE WAY OVER HERE AND GRABBED YOUR TUBE FOR YOU AND YOU’RE ACTING LIKE AN ANIMAL—“

A gust of wind blew past me and the contact felt between the tube and my buns disappeared. I turned around and watched as a 97-cent piece of pink and white plastic flew down the river, forever lost to the depths of the Madison. My face turned droopy and my arms went limp against the rushing current of the river, stuck in a downward spiral leading into depression as it sucked every ounce of life and motivation from my defeated body. I stared out at my prized possession as if I were a little boy watching my puppy run away from home; 50 feet… 75 feet… 100 feet…

“Can I have my tube back now?” asked Gretch. I looked back. She was right behind me.

You can’t be serious…

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