‘This River’ (Counterpoint Press, $14.95) is the new memoir by James Brown, who lives in Lake Arrowhead and teaches at Cal State San Bernardino. The book is full of fine writing, from first page to last. Here’s my favorite passage. It’s from the title chapter:
This is not at the Chetco River. This is in a run-down house my father rented after he got back on his feet, a few years after we moved out of Aileen’s place. This is at the kitchen table. Today we finished roofing a home, it’s evening, and we’re drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon. My father is old school, believing if I’m man enough to put in a full day pounding nails and hanging shingles, I’m man enough to have a couple beers. I’m sixteen.
When he drinks, he likes to reminisce, and he often talks about the Chetco, the years of his youth spent there, camping and fishing and swimming. He talks of one day building a home along its banks to bring his children together. To surround himself with us. But his words are empty. He is a poor man after our mother bankrupts him, and too old by then, too worn out, to recover his losses. Still he talks.
I’m not sure what gets into me. I’m not even sure why the subject crosses my mind, but I’m light-headed with alcohol, and it’s emboldened me. I’m young and my mouth works too easily. My father, however, is unfazed.
“Are you ever scared of dying?”
“What brought that up?”
I don’t say anything.
He smiles at me and chuckles.
“Death is nothing to be afraid of.”
He grew up around the Cherokee, and though baptized Methodist, he rarely spoke of Christ and didn’t care for organized religion.
“What comes of the earth,” he says, “returns to the earth. Your spirit goes into a pool of deep water where it mixes with the spirit of all God’s creatures. The bear. The mountain lion. The squirrel. The deer. Who are we to think we’re any better?” He puts his hand on top of mine resting on the table. He smiles again, knowing, I believe, that my question implies the child’s fear of losing his parent. “There’s nothing to worry about. The calm water feeds into the rapids and carries you on. The spirit never dies,” he says, “it just follows the river.”
A decade later, I’ll return to the Chetco … I bring Andy, my oldest at twelve, and Logan, just six. Nate has yet to be born. The lessons learned, on that first trip, run deeper than showing my sons how to pitch a tent, to shoot a rifle, to string tackle and bait a hook. It’s the experience itself. It’s the wedding of the past with the present, the time we spend together, and the time we’ll never have again. It’s about the loved and beloved and the memories that survive us.