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He looks like the vice principal from our old high school, and I suspect he is upset about the fact that I have inadvertently violated one of the rules. “Come Ba-a-a-ck!” he screams, but Steve casually pushes off from the shore and squeezes the bulb on the gas line to prime the outboard. “Looks like you slipped under the fence, again,” he says, almost admiringly. “That was always your style: avoid the gatekeepers— make your own way. Took me ages to learn that.” The motor starts with a single pull, and we worm our sweet blue way upstream among sandbars, waving at occasional groups of picnickers. Bright foliage whispers along the banks. It is almost too beautiful to bear. Steve always loved rivers. He painted in the style of “the group of seven,” a fantastically colored impressionistic style favored by a small group of Canadian artists in the early 20th century. It included much work inspired by the boundary waters north of Minnesota and the Canadian Shield country that stretches all the way to Hudson Bay. Clarks have been sailing to and from the island provinces and along the inland waterways of maple leaf land for hundreds of years, and our family has always been happiest when we are gathered near the water. As we turn into a new channel, the riverscape changes, All of the sudden, Steve’s favorite waterfalls from all over Wisconsin have somehow been transported here, their frothing streams now gathered mysteriously into the river of sticks. “I’m going to paint ‘em all, now,” he shouts proudly over the soft roaring of his friends. “I have all the time in the world.” “Neat trick!” I shout over the noise of the motor. “You think that’s cool?” he cries, “Watch this!” He throttles down to a quiet chug, and makes a cast with his rod into the channel behind us with his free hand. Almost immediately, the water explodes behind us and a giant muskie, spangled in orange, green and gold leaps at the sky and u-turns back to the water. The fish puts on a great show, racing back and forth as Steve reels him toward the net, until I get the feeling it is all a performance for my benefit. Finally the struggle ends in a fury of fins and white thunder at the bow. The muskie gasps up at me from the net, dagger-toothed, jewel-eyed—the largest I have ever seen. Steve dehooks, and lowers his catch back in the water, gently working the current through his gills. The leviathan raises its head and winks at me. “Never caught one like me, didja?” it says, and then with a bronze flip of its tail it is gone. Steve squints in the sun and sighs “Not much left of this visit,” he says. “Enjoy it while you can.” A lump forms in my throat. Not much time—and there is so much more I want to do with him. Sit on the deck of the Canadian cabin sipping Kakabecka Falls Cream Lager (a beer that hasn’t been brewed in twenty years), tell him about sci-fi books I’ve been reading, listen to the loons laughing as evening falls. “Let’s go for it,” he says. The engine roars again. We cut down one channel and then another, emerging in a thick white mist. For a while we are lost in it, and I wonder if we will ever come out, but when the mist lifts we are deep in the world of Steve’s paintings, gliding among islands deep in Ontario, cruising along pink granite banks robed in moss of purple, pink and emerald, embroidery of lichen, and a finery of ferns…. ... Then, out of nowhere, there is the sound of a klaxon horn, and a boat with flashing lights pulls up alongside. “LOTD SECURITY” it says on the side. “Oh Jeez,” says Steve. “Not these clowns again.” The security guys look pretty much like they might anywhere: rent-a- cop suits, mirrored sunglasses.


A seedy looking young man wearing a white robe sits at the tiller eying me sternly. In his free hand is a shepherd’s crook with which he hooks my elbow in a proprietary manner. “Registration? Poetic license?” he demands. Thinking quickly, I slip him a twenty, and he seems slightly mollified. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he says sourly. “You’re suppose to enter through the gift shop! You’re supposed to buy a ticket and join the tour!” “You better go,” Steve says. “I’ll see you later.” “Later, bro’.” As I get into the security boat and we pull away, I’m thinking that the crook wielder at the tiller looks like an extra from a really bad Christmas movie. He also looks eerily familiar. Noticing my regard he shrugs in a surly fashion. “Pneumonia,” he explains. “Winter of 1982. I used to be a shepherd at Biblical Gardens. You used to work with me at Alphonso’s Pizzeria in Madison. Remember?” “Biblical Gardens? Isn’t that the Bible theme park up near Lake Delton on Parkway N?” He nods sadly. “I was a better shepherd than a pizza cook, so when I got here they put me on the downstairs tour.” Downstairs Tour?? The boat pulls up to the mouth of a large misty cave and I am hustled ashore. “Hurry,” he says, getting officious again. “You are holding up the whole damned tour! Virgil is going to be really pissed!” I follow him through a long, dark tunnel, emerging in a vast cavern where a fetid breeze fans our cheeks. At our feet, a rocky gray path winds across a dark bubbling mire from which moans are emanating, and little plumes of flame are escaping like the dying gasps of a Zippo lighter. Large winged things flap high overhead, uttering weird and haunting cries. Pale stalactites, dripping from craggy overhangs, glow strangely in the flicker of flashing cameras. On the path, a long line of middle-aged people in cruise-line garb take snapshots of the classical looking dudes and ladies striking Promethean poses, neck and waist deep in the fiery lake. Aside from the flames, and the tortures of the damned—which might (except for the melting temperature of wax) have been better suited to the Wax Museum in Wisconsin Dells—the scene reminds me of the Cave of the Mounds, that mysterious tourist-haunted cavern located near Blue Mounds just off County F. “Pretty impressive, huh?” whispers my shepherd guide, as I take in the view. “It’s based on The Divine Comedy, with lighting by Gil Helmsley and atmospherics by Gustave Doré—but of course these idiots wouldn’t know Dante Alighieri from Neil Simon!” It is not a very fragrant realm though, and the noisome air is uncomfortably warm. The line moves sluggishly, and the distant voice of the guide, a tall gowned character crowned with an olive branch, drones on endlessly in dreary blank verse. I gather there are even more grim floors of exhibits further down. “This is the pits!” I tell the shepherd. “Do I really have to stick with this stupid tour?” He glances around and leans toward me confidentially. “The truth is that in the Land of the Dead you have a lot more freedom than you might imagine, but no one is supposed to know that. Ticket revenue would drop like a stone. Virgil and the LOTD board would get very upset….” Off to my left I hear a faint, yet familiar voice howling at unknown sinners. Can it possibly be the great Joel Gersman? Former dramatic patriarch of Wisconsin’s experimental Broom Street Theater? When no one is looking, I tiptoe off to the left across a few sizzling rocks and slip through a cleft in the rock through which the sound is emanating.