Last week, Will Bennett and his friend Brian Lambert persuaded Carding’s favorite eccentric, Amos Handy, to let them use a rather leaky stock tank to use as a raft to race down the Corvus River.
The Amnicolist River Race (an amnicolist is one who lives by a river) has been a Carding tradition for many years. Locals regard it as a way to finally declare your freedom from winter for another year.
There’s something else you need to know going forward—Brian Lambert used to be in a friendly relationship with Wil’s sister, Faye. But not any more and the wind from their fallout is having an impact on the whirl of teenage angst in Carding.
This is the second of three parts about Carding’s Amnicolist River Race. Here’s part one. Tune in next week to see who wins!
Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. You can find the little town that no one can seem to find on a map right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.
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The winter-hard buds on the local trees in Carding, Vermont are cracking open and new leaves, all bright and shiny new, are emerging. It is a heady time of year and over the course of May, many residents of this little town in Vermont (population 3,700) will succumb to a form of delirium that includes flowers and all shades of the color green.
Of course, that means it’s time for the annual Amnicolist River Race, a contest of homemade rafts floating downstream on the cold waters of the Corvus River.
This yearly event attracts a lot of attention around town. Let’s join first-time racer Suzanna Owen and her Uncle Ted as they discuss the upcoming festivities, shall we?
“What do you mean you don’t think you need to wear a helmet?” Ted Owen asked his niece. “The Corvus River is full of rocks, you know.”
“I know, I know,” Suzanna said. “But Wil checked the water level the other day and he told us that it’s just over knee level.”
Ted looked pointedly down at his niece’s knees. “You do realize that Wil’s nearly six-foot-two and you’re about eight inches shorter than that. What passes for knee level on him is not the same for you.”
“Well nobody’s ever gotten hurt during the raft race, right?”
“That’s right…because folks wear helmets.”
They stared at one another, not angry but more in a contest of wills, the normal state of affairs between a sixteen-year old and her legal guardian. “But we’re pirates,” Suzanna pouted, as if that explained everything.
“Hmm, yes but would you rather be a pirate with or without a concussion?” Ted extended his helmet-filled hand to his niece. “Honest Suzanna, you don’t want to go there. One of my dearest friends on my high school ski team took a bad fall in his senior year. He had to be tutored at home, barely made it graduation, and he sure doesn’t ski any more.”
“Oh all right,” she said in her grumpiest voice.
“Thank you. So have you and your pirate friends finished your raft?”
“Almost. Wil, Brian and Dave are still looking for a mast but Faye and I finished the skull and crossbones flag yesterday,” Suzanna said.
“Brian?” Ted squinched up his eyebrows. “Did I miss the latest installment of the Faye and Brian saga? I thought she had cut him out of her life.”
Suzanna nodded. “She did and still does. Brian says he’s not getting in the raft, that he’d rather laugh at us from shore.”
Ted chuckled. “Oh, I bet that went over well with Faye.”
Suzanna grinned and shook her head. “You know it didn’t. I’m not sure what his game is but Faye told him that she can’t wait until he graduates and leaves for college.”
Ted shook his head as he watched his niece rush out the door. The water in the Corvus River may be cold, he thought, but a riled Faye Bennett is even colder.
The Carding town beach is usually a pretty serene place in early spring. There’s a summer ice cream shack that gets boarded up for the winter and reopened every Mother’s Day but it’s not open yet. There are some picnic tables strewn among the pine trees that provide shade for everything but the curve of land that touches the water. And there’s a set of swings that all the kids who have grown up in Carding have used at one time or another. But they’re empty today.
Right now, the parking lot, the open areas among the tables and the shoreline are strewn with homemade rafts of every construction imaginable. Some of them are of the traditional, Huck-Finn variety, built of a wide variety of wood—painted, unpainted, plywood, dimensional lumber, roof rafters from derelict buildings and so on.
There’s one raft using an old air bed as a base. The smart betting money isn’t on that one, however, because the team who built it is having a heckuva time keeping it inflated.
One imaginative couple collected a number of foam shipping coolers over the winter, the type you send iced salmon in at Christmas time. Arranged in a three-by-four grid, the white coolers are roped together then topped with a tarp that is, in its turn, topped by two waterproof cushions on which the participants intend to kneel while paddling.
While the “cooler raft” wasn’t a heavy favorite, everyone acknowledged that it showed a good sense of recycling and, best of all, it did float.
But the raft garnering the most attention belonged to “The Old Ladies”: Edie Wolfe (aged 67) Ruth Goodwin (the young ’un at age 59), and Agnes Findley who is celebrating her 68th birthday today at the race.
In fact, participating in the race was Agnes’s idea.
“I want to do something really different,” she’d told her friends when they asked about making merry on her special day. “Something we’ve never done before.”
Rafting down the cold Corvus River certainly qualifies.
Now the Amnicolist River Race has only two rules: All rafts must be homemade and no one (neither racer nor watcher) is allowed to drink alcohol during the race. The Old Ladies’ raft definitely qualified as homemade.
“Two hundred and fifty,” Agnes explained to Wil Bennett as he admired their handiwork. “Andy Cooper let us go through his plastic recycling at the store for soda bottles and there are two hundred and fifty bottles in this thing.”
“How many rolls of duct tape?” Wil asked. Really, you had to admire the simplicity of the thing—capped empty soda bottles stacked three high, each bottle in each row bound to its neighbors with taut stretches of the gray adhesive tape famous for its ability to fix anything. And then the rows were bound to one another with more tape and then the whole raft was wrapped in still more tape.
Agnes shook her head. “I’m not really sure. We emptied Andy’s shelves and then hit two more hardware stores to get enough. I have no intention of falling in that cold water because this thing falls apart.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Wil said, admiring the wet suits worn by his grandmother and her two friends. For the first time, he wasn’t sure about bringing home the oversized rubber duckie that’s been the winning trophy in the Amnicolist River Race for the past ten years.
He walked over to where his sister Faye, her best friend Suzanna and his friend Dave Muzzy stood with their oars. Together, the foursome gazed lovingly at the raft they’d fashioned from a galvanized steel stock tank. Dave’s father had contributed to their effort with a necklace of large buoys, a gift from a friend who owned a marina.
The Pirates had also added a small wooden quarterdeck and fashioned a mast from a tent pole. Faye and Suzanna’s flag, done in red and white instead of the traditional black and white skull-and-crossbones, rippled in the onshore breeze.
The Pirates wore podged-together outfits of waterproof gear culled from some of the town’s more avid anglers. Wil sported a pair of bright orange waders that rose just past his waist. Faye’s and Suzanna’s waders were olive green and had to be rolled down at the top to fit under their arms. Dave had the best outfit of them all, his father’s fisherman’s coveralls in bright shiny yellow.
Suddenly a slashing laugh cut through their reverie. “Oh my gawd, are you really going into the water dressed like that?” Brian Lambert hooted.
None of the four Pirates responded with words. It had been months since Brian had permanently ruptured his relationship with Faye. Even worse, in her eyes, Brian had dragged her brother into his deception. Despite Faye’s disapproval, Wil had tried to maintain a certain level of friendship with Brian but it was mostly limited to discussions about sports but now that seemed to have reached its end.
After staring at Brian for a moment, Wil and Dave turned back toward the water and resumed their contemplation of their raft. Faye rolled her eyes at her former boyfriend before turning her back to him as well. But Suzanna crossed her arms over her chest and leveled a disbelieving gaze at the young man now standing by himself in the crowd.
Brian shifted from foot to foot for a moment, uncertain how to handle the ostracism that he had provoked. For him, the truth was—as truth often is—more complicated than a simple breakup with Faye Bennett. Brian couldn’t admit to anyone that the feisty young woman scared him. Faye was sharply intelligent and clever, outspoken and funny. Brian admired her and when they were together, he’d enjoyed the energy that swirled around her.
But given his druthers, he preferred a life that was predictable. Faye challenged his opinions and choices and that made Brian feel far too vulnerable for comfort. That’s why, when his family returned to Martha’s Vineyard for the holidays, Brian had fallen back into a relationship with his former girlfriend, Sheila.
Sheila was pretty and sweet and interested in the stuff Brian liked, Game of Thrones and football on TV, playing golf and boogie boarding at the beach. She wanted to work in her mother’s insurance agency after she graduated and had no plans to ever leave the Vineyard. For Brian, resuming his relationship with Sheila had required no effort at all and quite frankly, that’s the way he liked it.
But there was a problem with Brian’s choice. When he returned to Carding, he found he lacked the grit to tell Faye about his change of heart. Embarrassed, he asked Wil to keep his renewed relationship with Sheila a secret and then he passively drifted along until Faye figured it out on her own, as he knew she would.
Faye had not appreciated Brian’s lack of effort in the breaking-up department.
After that, Brian let all of his relationships in Carding dwindle. His tenuous friendships with Wil and Dave had simply been the last to go. The remainder of his senior year in high school now stretched toward June in a long and lonely line of days.
He glanced at Suzanna, expecting to see her face hard and masked like the others. But her face was sad. “What are you looking at?” he demanded.
“You do realize you did this to yourself, right?” she asked in a soft voice.
“Pushed away the people who were ready to like and accept you.”
“I didn’t do any such thing. You’re all just snobs with nothing to be snobbish about,” Brian said. “You’re all nothing and you’ve got nothing.” When the other three pirates turned to look at him, Brian stalked away.
Suzanna ran to catch up with him. “I didn’t know anyone, not even my Uncle Ted, when I first came to Carding,” she said as she panted by his side. “And I was pretty scared, just like you.”
Brian whirled on her, his fists clenched. “I’m not scared.”
“The people here are kind,” Suzanna persisted. “You know that. So why are you doing this?”
“Leave me alone.” Brian’s shout cut through the hubbub of the crowd. Several people turned to look at them. The tall young man and the petite Suzanna made an interesting juxtaposition with one another.
For a moment, everyone froze in place. Wil started toward them but then stopped. What was he supposed to do? He looked at his sister, expecting to see her still angry. But she wasn’t.
“I think we need to let him go, Wil,” she said quietly. “He’s hurting. Maybe try again later.”
Just then, Charlie Cooper cleared his throat and raised a bullhorn to his mouth. That was the signal for the start of the race.
“Come on, Suzanna,” Faye shouted. “We gotta go!”
As she trotted back to her friends, Edie Wolfe caught Suzanna’s eye. “That was a good try,” she whispered as she squeezed the teenager’s shoulder. “He wasn’t ready.”
To her surprise, Suzanna had to blink back tears as she nodded.
Wil and Faye were now jumping up and down to get Suzanna’s attention.
“You’d better go,” Edie said as she pulled a pink helmet over her gray hair. “Just remember, the Old Ladies are going to win.”
Suzanna grinned “Oh, I don’t know about that. We’re pirates.”
Remember, you can visit Carding any time by scouring the archive of older stories or by reading one of my four Carding novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, or Lights in Water, Dancing.
Thanks for stopping by.