Since moving to a city, I have had a thing for the full moon. How it waits behind buildings like a spy. I learn the espionage of streetlights, headlights, the tease of stark beacons on planes. I mess with my camera and patrol the dark like a captain of capturing what’s splendid. Full moon photos from the high rise. From beneath the bike path’s leafy oaks. Caught between phone lines.
One night, I slip my kayak into the river, camera in a baggie. I’m going to get a photo of the waning gibbous moon over the state capitol dome. It’s the last good moon before the semester starts, when there will be no committees on nighttime forays, no classes on impulse.
Years ago, I salvaged the kayak. Green hull, jutting from a slow crash of ice sheets piling against the remnants of a late autumn log pile caught against the end of the walkway. What a mess. What a find. I brought a yellow rope from home, one we’d used to train the dog, and I crawled over ice to the kayak. It wasn’t far, just a few feet, the river plenty frozen for my weight. I worked the rope through a hole in the front tip and hauled the battered boat into my world. Dents on the bottom and starboard. Cargo of frozen mud. Dragged it six blocks and down one alley, then angled it through my narrow gate and slid it down the cellar steps. Under a bare bulb, I scooped mud and swung a mallet against the dents. Ran my fingers along the identification numbers stamped in metal, held tight by bolts. Finders keepers.
It’s not the type of kayak where you are buttoned in to the hull and would have to know how to flip back to life if you capsize. No way. It’s an amateur’s recreational kayak—plunk into a seat bolted to the bottom of the boat and the space is open across lap and knees. Your feet slip into the tip of the wide hull where there are ledges. Shift weight for a straight tack. Storage behind the seat. There I keep a fishing net (also salvaged from the river). Once, I netted a purple glitter wallet. Student ID from the community college and a gift card to the grocery store and a dime, black as depths. I emailed the student. Did you find the purse too? she asked. It was a Gucci, that’s all I really miss. I asked her if she wanted her ID back. No, she said, I’m a dancer now. The gift card? I think it’s all used up. At the grocery they ran the card and there was enough for chips and a Coke.
The eastern horizon is low with clouds, the western still slivered by sun. I paddle huge circles in the middle of the Susquehanna, the oldest river in the region. Its name means “place of the oysters,” and sometimes I see them like thick coral commas long dropped from a sentence. Its tributary, the Swatara, comes with a better translation: “place of the eels.” The eels are long gone, blocked by dams. Done in by pollution. I relish telling this to visiting friends, just to see their reaction. They get stuck on the eels. I don’t know anyone living who has seen an eel. No one does.
Old rivers are wide and shallow. Want to reach the far shore in a dented kayak? Plan half an hour. Daytime, I can see the bottom, speckled with turquoise snails and river grass fuzzy with sediment. Tires too. I can’t imagine the effort required to clean it up. Last year they found a bass with cancer, the first. National headlines.
The sun sets in a dull spill of retreat. Solitary firework, orange, sparkles for an instant. Pontoon boats idle in the deeper stretch. A woman lifts her glass of wine to solitary me in the silent kayak and says, “God that looks heavenly.” I confirm. Another pontoon plays classical music, which is nice, and I linger in their wake until the selection ends. One hoists a full-sized stars and stripes. There’s a military green fishing boat with six men sitting shoulder to shoulder. How can that be fun? Over by the islands, another camo boat holds two men who are setting up a spotlight. The almost-full moon isn’t enough for some.
Darkness falls for real and the moon is nowhere. I check my watch; it should be rising, but the clouds seem too thick, even though they are scattered higher up and there are stars straight above. Slice another huge circle to kill time, being careful to dodge the pontoon boats who now can’t see me at all. They have running lights and I just have ideas. At least I’ve worn a white t-shirt. Still, I’ve misjudged how low I ride in the water, how hard it must be for them to see me in the dark. And now the city’s big old paddleboat is headed up river with a load of drunken moon watchers.
The paddleboat has been outfitted in an array of LEDs that light up one by one in a race around the decks, like Christmas on overtime in August, and when they are all lit, they cycle through a flash of red, green, blue, white. The boat is a Vegas marquee. The booze cruisers have paid to see the full moon over the capitol, and the paddleboat is soon angling for the spot I had been circling for free, under my own power. I decide to move upriver, then turn and float down, my back to the carnival.
As I turn, though, bugs pelt my face. Like someone is throwing tiny pieces of cardboard at my forehead. One hits my ear canal with a wiry wet buzz that makes me flail. Black dots of bugs find my legs, my elbows, my neck, so much of a swarm that I swat and brush in a panic. The kayak wobbles and I stop. Time to think, not react. They vortex into the trail of light from the street lamps. Snow flurry. Surface of the river coated with wings and legs. Fish bump rings into the feast. I paddle upriver fast, to the true dark, and suddenly they are gone. How many are in my hair.
I swing the nose of the kayak around to face the east river bank, where the moon will rise over Pennsylvania’s capitol building, a green and gold dome. The sky is lighter now, so I know to look low between the buildings. Huge apricot. Melancholia. Come collide with me. It rises faster than I would like as I pluck my camera from its baggie and brush horrid black bugs off my thighs. With my camera, there is a light setting to consider, and the zoom lens, and the waves from the pontoon boats make it hard to hold the camera steady for the longer aperture opening needed for a night shot. And my kayak never cooperates in these moments—it spins me opposite. If only an anchor.
Like always, like dents, like the luck of looking, I get shot after shot of blurred light orbs until trial and error runs its course and I take my best, the moon just up over the city, a bank of clouds rimmed by mandarin, the capitol peeking from behind a tree. Focused. Red brake lights below. I know it when I have it and head for home, which is the first lit ramp after the long stretch of dark due to park lights long in disrepair. Shadows of trouble, a bag handed off, a parting of ways. I’m not sure of what’s happening on shore, but sure those souls don’t want a kayaker showing up in the middle of it. They leave and I make my move, but pause for a rat doubled in size by his moon shadow. Disappears into the weeds. Haul out the kayak. Strap it to its travel cart. It follows like a tired dog across the three empty lanes of Front Street and the three empty lanes of Second Street. It’s not a surprise, these empty streets, and it’s been one of the greatest discoveries of living in the city: find the right hour and it’s all yours.
By moonlight and streetlight I angle my kayak down the alley behind home and find by feel alone the old bike lock hung on the fence post. I lock it through the seat straps. Anyone could cut them and steal. No one ever does. River gods guard my alley. I slip my key in the door to home. A cold beer, the good dog waiting.