A MILLION MARIAS
by Gene Goldfarb
Jack lived on a busy tongue of land that pointed out on the Atlantic Ocean east to a European continent. His home turf was filled with people and entities hungry for money and for power. And they enjoyed pouncing on the unwary in an endless gotcha game. Often these predators were local politicians, unionized cops and teachers, water district administrators, school district administrators, boards of education, zoning boards, and real estate developers and agents. Anyone who was organized or connected. You needed a tree permit just to plant one lone small tree on your mowing strip.
And this was called Long Island.
If you made enough money, you could stay or build yourself a MacMansion. If not, you could move out or east to a parcel that contained little more than a modest bungalow.
Jack was a traveler who hadn’t gone on a trip for several years. Now he was eyeing a brief vacation in the Rockies, where there were rapids on the Arkansas River. He thought he needed such a trip, even though his wife was oblivious to that need, or at least shared no such desire. He loved whitewater rafting, although he had only done it a few times before. He learned he could go to CañonCity and Buena Vista and catch some white water with the local outfitters. And so he booked his trip to Colorado.
In every person, there was a special tune to their soul, a song that played inside them throughout their lives. At least Jack believed it. Actually, it was more than a song, it was a purpose, a truth to which they were inexorably headed. It did not have to make any sense, it just was there. For him, it was a Neopolitan tune, known as Maria, Mari!
When he arrived in Denver, he drove down to a B&B in Colorado Springs to first spend a few days there. He stayed with missionaries who seemed very curious about his religious background. Proselytizing was a way of life for them. They had come to Colorado Springs to do good, and had, in fact, done very well. This couple had a house that could easily have made it into Architectural Digest, but it was more like a museum than a home. Though Jack would admit it felt warm and lived in.
On his first day there, he toured Garden of the Gods, a strange rocky preserve where huge granite stones poked upward out of the red clay, looking like prehistoric flying saucers that had crashed perpendicular into the earth. On his second day there he left the B&B and toured Manitou Springs, skipping the little railroad that took you up Pike’s Peak, a pricey short ride. Besides, there was an announcement that due to some condition the train was only going half way up. Of all places in Manitou Springs, on the main street there was an ice cream parlor combined with a Middle Eastern restaurant. Suffice it to say, Jack had his first and best shawarma there.
In CañonCity, he found a burger joint that looked out of the ’50s where the accommodations seemed plasticky and the food was fried to the gills. Still, food’s food, and when you’re hungry there’s nothing better. There was an old-fashioned wide main street, a single old movie house, and the Territorial Prison on the west end, actually the state prison. You could buy an inmate’s uniform cheap, but you would have to find one that fit you and wasn’t itchy. So no suit.
Outside Cañon City there was Golden Gorge, a truly dangerous section of whitewater at one point on the Arkansas that rated a 5 on a difficulty scale when the water was high. Jack had spent the night before in town at a B&B where the bed was shorter than him. He had recovered well on a sumptuous breakfast his host had favored him with. You might say he came out even on that one.
He checked in at the Golden Gorge outfitters around noon. There were three inflatable boats. All the rafters, including Jack, changed into black rubber wet suits and wet shoes. They really needed them. The suits had a faint stink to them that washing didn’t get out.
Going down Golden Gorge was slow at the beginning, but picked up several miles downriver. This was late May and the water had risen each day with snowmelt, which made the river faster and colder than the day before. Also, the higher water hid the rocks, which made the ride more dicey, bumpy and fast.
A few of the rapids were really scary. Jack was in the front left of their inflatable boat with a crew of six plus the guide, a hardened young westerner who had done this for at least several seasons. She would forecast each rapid to come and advise you what to expect from the bad ones. When you got to a bad one the rush of the water would become thunderous and the water on the way down would fulminate and toss you a bit to the right or left. It was like a stairway going down with steps missing here and there. As you encountered rocks and turbulence, she’d yell out, “high side right” or “high side left,” telling you which way to lean.
Each time they got past a bad rapid Jack could feel the knot in his stomach ease and hear the retreating roar. He had been having trouble reaching the water with his paddle on these rapids if his side of the boat was tilted to the other side up over the water, so the turbulent surface was almost three feet below the outside of the gunnels. As long as the rapid in question went straight down or straight into a swirling white cauldron, it looked and sounded threating. But the real problem was the zigzags for which Jack was never fully ready.
Before he knew it they were past all the major rapids, and traveling subsided into a semi-float-semi-glide. Several vans awaited them beyond the bank where they had pulled their inflatables ashore. In about twenty minutes all the rafters were back at the starting point. Getting out of the wet suits and wet shoes was almost as hard as getting into them.
He then drove to Buena Vista, a town with a backdrop of mountains named after Ivy League colleges. They were all snow-capped even though this was late May. He couldn’t understand why Coloradans would pick these eastern colleges for their names. The French trappers used the descriptive Grand Tetons to name a couple of mountains in Wyoming. Now, that made sense even if it was a bit risqué. Jack thought Colorado was perhaps the second most beautiful state. He held an innate prejudice in favor of Utah’s stone bridges. He got to Buena Vista before dinnertime, and it was a longer drive than he expected.
That evening Jack drove off west into the hills where they had hot springs. When he got there, a woman behind the desk eyed him with mild suspicion.
“You here for a soak?”
“Yep,” Jack answered, having learned the term from his B&B host earlier.
“Twelve dollars, since you’re coming in after nine.”
One hot spring was actually hot, two were warm, one a bit more than the other, and one was slightly cool. Jack felt like he was being fitted into new skin on entering these pools, especially the cool one which was last. He met an elderly couple, where the husband was originally from Huntington, Long Island. Every former Long Islander seemed to be from a boutique town like Huntington, Garden City, or Great Neck. Or at least that’s what they claimed.
On the second day, Jack had decided to take it easy and do Brown’s Canyon. This river section with class 2 to 3 rapids was a nice tension break for him after several hours of the rough waters on Golden Gorge.
In Buena Vista, he made a point of eating at a local landmark burger shack that was also known for its milkshakes, where your order ticket had a famous name instead of a number. So you had to pay attention when they called out the customer whose order was ready. Jack might have been a smart ass back home, but here all of a sudden he was Isaac Newtown, a hell of an instant promotion. Anyway, the burger and fries were tasty, and the milkshake even better.
On his final day, Jack went for the Numbers, a 3 to 4 class rapids. This was a tricky section of the Arkansas River that harbored a few nasty surprises. Many of these adventurers were groups of either young men or families. Of course, there were couples. Jack noticed his assigned boat had a stocky, elderly woman who was by herself. And why an older woman would go on something like this by herself? Jack had to breach privacy on this point.
“I see you’re by yourself. How come?” he ventured.
“My husband and I used to do this every spring.” He passed away some time ago.”
It only reminded Jack of how extremely unathletic his wife was.
“So what’s your name?” he asked.
“That’s a pretty name. Unusual though.”
She laughed and added, “Well, everyone calls me by my middle name. Maria.”
Jack nodded, then said, “Oh, that’s pretty too.
She smiled at Jack and said, as if lecturing a child, “In Greece, we have a million Marias. All of them beautiful. You should visit sometime, I could introduce you some of them.”
“You live in Greece?”
“No, no. I haven’t been back in many years.”
“So, where do you live now?” He didn’t know how to follow up on her confession.
“I live in Dillon with my daughter. She manages a bar-restaurant there.”
“Oh, why haven’t you gone back?”
She gave a piteous shrug, “It’s poor and dirty, except for the islands—you know, Mykonos, Santorini. But they are expensive, for tourists really.”
The group was finally all suited up and gathered. Several vans took them
to a starting point on The Numbers. They dragged three inflatable boats into the slow-moving waters. Jack was on the same boat with Maria and four other rafters, plus a young male guide. Jack took the front left position while Maria took a seat on the right rear, just in front of the guide.
The Numbers started out quietly enough, but after a while, showed some real juice. The weather had turned cloudy, this always being an ominous sign for Jack. The young guide started working for his tips in trying to forge camaraderie with is crew, but Jack didn’t believe he was going to massage this bunch into a well-oiled machine. Not this bunch of spoiled sounding young women who were complaining about their mosquito bites and guys who couldn’t wait to get back to their beers.
When the guide called out to Jack, he asked, “So where are you from?”
“Long Island, near New York,” Jack answered.
“Hey. I hear there’s a lot going on back there.” This was one of those conversation openers that were supposed to lead anywhere when you didn’t know where you were going.
“I suppose so,” Jack responded reluctantly.
Before this dialogue got anywhere, the guide held up his hand and yelled, “Left, high side.”
The crew responded with robotic efficiency and handled the first twisty rapid with ease. The guide thankfully never got back to this conversation. One of the rafters interrupted to ask how long the ride would take from that point. The rafters handily went through a bunch of dip and zigzag rapids. Of course, they also played that obligatory game, you could call it “Let’s Splash the Leader,” with the boat ahead of them.
After getting most of the way through the rapids, Jack found his attention waning. Then he heard guide shout, “High side,” but didn’t hear which side. At that point a large rock face came up on his side, causing him to bend low and into the boat. But the boat seemed already to be approaching upright in a sideways tilt toward the right. Jack felt himself falling into and against the big fellow, who was the right front paddler. It felt almost pleasant, as this right front guy also tilted obligingly to the right. Before Jack knew it, they had all capsized the boat.
Just after surfacing, Jack could hear snatches of speech, “Hey where’s Jill? Tom’s over on the other side. Catch Diane. You see him?” Then he felt himself heading down river all alone. He made sure to keep his legs in a horizontal float near to the surface as possible. His main sensation was one of incredible loneliness and fear, as if heading into a place he’d never been before. After a few seconds or minutes, time being very uncertain in his situation, he saw one of the boats bearing down on him and grabbed the rope around the outside of the gunnels. One of the older rafters in the boat tried pulling him up and in by Jack’s life vest, but didn’t have the leverage. Jack knew one thing: he wasn’t letting go of the gunnel rope.
Off to the side, he noticed somebody seemed to be sliding past him. It was Maria. He reached out with one hand but only caught her hand. He felt her fingers scratch the palm of his hand. The boat then jerked and he lost touch with her. She floated further down river and he could not see her, the boat now blocking his view as it moved over to shore, a rock embankment.
Jack and several other rafters were deposited on the left bank among the rocks and sat there recovering for a while. He heard they had found Maria further down and that she was all right. They all rested for about fifteen minutes. Miraculously, the paddles were all retrieved, and the crew was able to set out after being reassured by the guide that the worst was over. Maria said she was fine, except her left foot felt numb.
The rest of the ride was uneventful, and everyone seemed grateful for that. There were several vans waiting for the rafters to take them back to the outfitter’s facility to change back into their clothes.
Jack noticed Mariah seemed to be hobbling coming off the van. He felt he had to approach her.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t hold on.”
“It’s okay. You tried. You helped. Without you, it would have been worse.”
“You sure you’re alright?” She seemed to be wincing in pain.
“Shh. Don’t worry.”
Jack told the office he was worried about Mariah. Someone came out and looked at her left ankle briefly. They didn’t take her wet shoe off. They called an ambulance. Jack and the other rafters changed in the meantime. A few minutes later, an ambulance arrived. The EMT guys took a close look and felt Mariah’s ankle. They concluded it was probably broken and told the office and Jack before taking her to the hospital.
The following morning he would leave for Denver airport. Meanwhile, he would drive back to his bed and breakfast. He couldn’t help wondering what Maria must have looked like in her younger days. As he drove he softly sang,
“Oye Marie, oye Marie,
quanta suonno ca perdo pe’tté!…”
In the early hours of next morning as sleep wore off, he would still feel as if he were pushing out to sea, from the Bay of Naples onto the Mediterranean that awaited him as he went out farther and farther on a peaceful blue-green expanse. And that sea held a million Marias, all of them beautiful.
About the Author:
Gene Goldfarb lives on Long Island in New York. He writes mostly poetry, does volunteer work and loves to travel. His poetry has appeared in Black Fox, SLANT, Quiddity, COG, Sheila Na-Gig, Green Briar Review and elsewhere. His short fiction and stories have appeared in Bull &Cross, Twenty-Two Twenty-Eight, and Furtive Dalliance.