Tilt Toward the Sun
fiction by Rick Van Noy

The whole problem with roofing is that on sunny days you were expected to roof. Roofs kept out the bad weather, but you ripped off shingles, pried up plywood, lay down new material on good days. And those were days when you wanted to do something else, like go fishing. 

Cecil cursed his chosen career not when nearly sliding off a pitch or covered in the dirt and grime of a tear off rather than an overlay, but when he was up there on an eave, the sun glaring, straddling the ridge high above the other houses, and the river tempting him to the west. He might have thought of it, he knew, just like how people might have foreseen that their roofs needed repair well before they started leaking. Only they didn’t. People had a hard time seeing into their future, preparing for it. “I can’t afford a whole roof. Can you fix the bad spot?” Patch it and he would be back.  

Not that he was any different. Heck, he rarely shopped for more than enough groceries for the next day. He wouldn’t be out here if he didn’t need the money, mostly for medical bills, and the other thought that always came to him, in addition to how he’d rather be fishing, was that “I’m too damn old for this shit.” 

His roofing business started because he wasn’t afraid of heights. A long time ago his neighbor Jeff asked him to help with cleaning out a gutter. Could he hold the ladder? Sure. Only Jeff got about four steps up and his knees wobbled. Cecil said, “You hold. I’ll climb.” But you never really needed anyone to hold the ladder, not if it had good footing. Sometimes he would pound a stake into the ground, firm against the first rung, to make sure it didn’t slip, but c’mon. The ladder wasn’t going anywhere—not with the weight on those feet. And not if you placed it right in the first place—four stable points. He had little patience for people’s petty anxieties, although he knew he might have understood them. 

One gutter led to the next and then some shingle repair and soon, a Cecil Underwood, Roofing and Gutters, decal on the side of his truck. Working for himself was better than his job at the old arsenal. The arsenal was built in the ’40s to make ammunition for the war and after, jet fuel and other explosives he knew not what. They incinerated some of the trash to burn some off the residue—the spark of metal on metal in a trash bin might cause an explosion. He worried about his exposure to the chemicals, in addition to those he was exposed to in Vietnam. He was glad to be out of both places, and though he only occasionally took off to fish, he always had the option. 

And he rather liked the work, despite the grime. Although the houses went up fast during the building of the arsenal—the streets named for generals like Pershing and MacArthur—each dwelling and owner was different, their situation unique. Though he didn’t mind ladders, he had also developed a ladderless gutter cleaner, a big hose attached to something like a shop vacuum at one end, a fishhook curve at the other. Hold it up and suck. But it was always clogging with sticks and pine needles. You wasted time unclogging the tube. It couldn’t get the caked in stuff. Better just to climb the ladder and scoop. Besides, the noise—as bad as leaf blowers. 

The problem was ladders were getting harder to climb, not because his knees knocked, but because he wanted for air. It got thinner up there he swore. Past the sixth rung and he could feel his chest. Fire—it might have once saved people on the tundra, given us food and warmth. But it would also our undoing. The packs he no longer smoked, gunpowder manufactured for wars, the trash incinerator, napalm. All the blazing was what, burning us up. And the irony of it all is that we put nature right back in charge. 

Sure if customers wanted, he was willing to put in Guard Gutters, and they worked some, but no system was perfect. With a screen or filter, the stuff just collected on the screen. And the guards rarely worked as gutters. The rain came so hard lately it rushed past the protective covering onto the ground below, flooding basements, which was a whole other problem he did not want to deal with—dark, damp, cellars. Were the costs worth the investment? 

It was the question with his latest venture, putting on solar panels. He did it begrudgingly, only because hey, anything that stuck it to the power company, the ones who controlled the goddamn dam upstream, was fine by him. And what a cool thing! Point glass toward the sun and light bulbs, your toaster. But it was a hard sell in his little town. Some of the do-gooders at the college, yes, they wanted it, but the rest of the working folk, too cheap. He was so cheap he sometimes opened a bag of the local coffee, H&C brand, and put in some beans from the bulk bin, then closed it again and paid. He hated giving money to the power company. The ones that wrecked the river. And it always made him mad, that button on his TV remote: POWER. Who was he giving his power to? Might as well make his own. 

He was dubious of the whole altruistic nature of it, but he had seen changes on the river in the periods of drought followed by torrents of rain. Anyone who watched weather had. Sometimes the wind wrecked his work, or a rain squall, or a strewn limb. Sometimes the whole trunk through. On the river, the fish were fewer, he didn’t care what the pens-in-pockets guys at the state agency said. It had to be the heat, but they also kept letting water out of the dam because of floods upriver in the mountains of North Carolina. If surges scoured the banks, they also did the bottom, where fish spawned.  

He did, however, see more birds than since he was a boy. He sometimes saw eagles now in the stretch just downstream of dam, and he was pretty sure one had a nest up high in a pine tree. 

The city had tax credits for installing the panels, and he wanted to take advantage. The mayor ran on it, on reducing our “carbon footprint.” Mayor McCheese, as he called him, or “your cheesinesss,” could reduce his bootprint by one less sausage biscuit. He had to hand it to him though. He had the profile: cheerleader for the town, loud voice, loved attention. All things Cecil was not. He already had the ladders and equipment for rooftop solar, but he needed the electrical know how. That is what he wanted to tell the guys he could sometimes to find to help—become an electrician. That’s where the money would be, if people were serious about this new grid.  

They were good workers, never complaining, even with their English improving, and he liked the way they helped and teased each other: “Enrique, tu eres mujer o hombre?” It reminded him of his time in the army, the ribbing and manly posturing. 

Even before his time on the ladders, he used to walk the railroad bridge, timing it for when the trains had passed. In the river below, he would scout for holes. Beneath the water and above the rumpled cobble, he would spy finny shadows. And then he would return to that spot, wading up to his chest.

His fearlessness of heights is how he ended up in planes. It wasn’t because he had ever flown before, not that many hicks from the mountains did. And he had no medical experience. He told the draft officer that no, he wasn’t afraid of heights. Even before his time on the ladders, he used to walk the railroad bridge, timing it for when the trains had passed. In the river below, he would scout for holes. Beneath the water and above the rumpled cobble, he would spy finny shadows. And then he would return to that spot, wading up to his chest.

When he thought of that skyward transport, he was carried into what rough shape those men were in, bloodied and bandaged. Someone in the field hospital had decided that they might be saved if they received better care, but they always seemed doomed, barely conscious. They flew west toward the sun from Saigon to Bangkok, and his main job was to lift stretchers, stay with them in flight, apply pressure, patch the leaks—a foreshadowing of his eventual career. After a while, he didn’t want to learn their names, only where they were from. Years later, and even now, he would sometimes feel like he was having their dreams. He was in his body but their minds.  

Now he fished from a kayak he had bought from New River Outfitters, the place over by the lake. They sold a lot of recreational kayaks to the rich lake people, but he bought his there too. It had holders for two rods. That way he could rig up two ways, a spoon say on one line and a jig head on the other. It had a cup holder too and sometimes a beer had to come along. 

He had quit drinking when Ellen left twenty years ago. He and Ellen were still married on paper. Who else would get his VA benefits? She couldn’t take the moods, his absence to work or the river, or the dense forest he went to in his head. And after Blake died, their once state champ in pole vaulting—he was  not afraid of heights either—he was increasingly in his own head. A misplaced pole led to a broken leg to painkillers and then to killing the pain altogether. The doctor wanted Cecil to stay quit. The kayak was his prescription, and Cecil liked the way it slid in next to the ladders, as if he was equipped for anything, work or leisure. He liked the quiet of it, especially after a day of pneumatic hammers. 

Today that good weather was calling. And it was too hot to be up on a roof, above 90 all week. The shingles liquified under your boots. After they tacked on a tarp to replace the side they had stripped, temporary just in case it did rain, he told the boys to meet him again in the cool morning. 

“You’ll be back in morning?” Joan Quisenberry asked him and he knew why. When heavy into drink, it was sometimes a few days before he returned to finish a job. And once he hadn’t put on a temporary tarp, leaving a sodden mess below.  

“We will, in the morning,” he assured her. 

“And that spot over the upstairs hall?” 

“We’ll fix the flashing in that valley. I don’t think it was installed right.”  

Joan was retired from working as a secretary in the dean’s office. She still was not bad to look at and when on her roof he liked to picture her moving in rooms below him. She and Ellen were close, and he was glad she, at least, retained some faith in him. When Blake died, Joan was one of the few who brought over a casserole. Not that they didn’t have friends. He figured it was the stigma of addiction and overdose. No one knew what to say. 

He never dreamt about his customers the way he did the men in the plane, but sometimes, even pulling up to a job site, he could almost intuit where the problem was, without even a close inspection. He knew her valley was the culprit when he pulled up. 

Since the kayak was already on the roof of his truck, he headed for the river. His plan was to fish in the shade and in the shadow of the dam. The massive concrete monolith spooked him some, the weight and pressure of the water behind it, a trickle streaming over a gate. As any roofer knew, any leak would mean more damage. But the river was calm below there and above the highway bridge. He could put his boat in, drift slowly downstream, and circle back to the ramp. If he didn’t go below the bridge, it always made for a pleasant afternoon. And though it was hot, there was always a coolness to the river, a vaporous breeze there. 

He paddled close to shore, sneaking up on the fish with the stealth of a heron. He clipped his paddle on the side of his kayak and raised his rod to cast. Alternating between rigs, he kept casting and casting but had little more than a snag. The water was up. The power company supposedly performed a “levelized” operation in summer, so the river would not rise suddenly, but he knew they opened the gates to meet peak air conditioning demand. 

He took a final swig of his beer and was about ready to give up when he hooked one by one of the bridge piers. While he reeled in, the fish kept fighting, moving, taking line. It might have been a muskie, a stocked fish some liked, but her never did. Or a striped bass, also introduced. By the time he brought it close, he was downstream from the bridge and nearing the rapid. The rapid was reported to be an old fish weir used by Natives. All he knew was that there was good fishing in there too, just a more complicated shuttle. You needed a partner with one car upstream and one down. 

When he pulled it close to the boat he saw flashes of a yellow-green small-mouth. When it finally grew lethargic near the surface, he put his thumb on the hard lower lip to extract the hook. The curly tail rubber worm lodged deep in the gullet. Cecil preferred minimal contact with the fish, cradling horizontally so as not to damage muscle tissue. By the time he finally extricated the hook, slackened his grip to release the bass, it was too late. Not for the fish, but for his getting back to the truck easily. He was drifting into the large V at the beginning of the rapid. 

He pulled into an eddy behind one rock, a fish resting or hawk on a thermal, and thought he might be able to catch his breath, paddle hard up over the rim of rapid and back upriver, back to the ramp. When he did ease out, paddled hard, the nose caught the current and soon he was headed downstream. He caught the next eddy and rested there. 

He knew the river as well or better than anyone, and he hated to find himself in this embarrassing situation, as if frozen on a ladder. His crew would find it funny if he could explain it to them. That’s why they fished from the bank they would probably say. He would have to paddle down through the rapid and find a spot on shore to take out. Down there was the Dalton place, where they used to run the ferry. An ancestor in the eighteenth century was captured by Shawnee, taken away, and she found her way back along the river. An outdoor play used to dramatize her story and the savage Indians who removed her. They left the part out about the land being taken from them in the first place. 

It might be dark by the time he walked back to the truck, but we would get there. For now, he tucked in behind a rock, pointed upstream, in a river that flowed north. Now and then, he inched out to see if he wanted to move up a rung to the eddy above, try again. But he would just steer back to his harbor. What an afternoon it had been. The calm water and then the abrupt change. He barely noticed the change in current until he was in it. Like how we suddenly found ourselves in this hot series of summers. 

Scanning across the river, the other rocks and waves, he began to think of the infinite possibilities for navigating. You pinballed through them and hoped for the best. You hoped your choices, or the ones chosen for you, did not lead to disaster. The sun rays caught the backs and curves of the rolling waves, scattering and glinting into dancing highlights, blinding him if not for his shades, like the sparkle glitter of a new roof or solar panel. 

Although he could stay where he was with just a flick of the paddle, he was tired from the exertion a little earlier. When younger, he might have stayed in a spot like this, bobbing out into the power of the river, and back into the recirculating eddy. Balance and equilibrium, an energy dynamo. 

As he steadied the boat, he thought he heard a voice calling from the bank. It might have been Ann who lived with Hiram in the old house. At the house across the river, the site of the old tavern, they still raised peacocks, and maybe that’s what he heard—was it a baby’s cry or a woman’s? He and Blake had camped on the island once a long time ago, the one behind him and just over his left shoulder. The peacock screams woke them in the night, terrified. Would they still camp and fish together had he lived? Cecil could dream other lives, but he couldn’t peer into the future. Still, he wondered what this hotter world would look like by the time Blake would have turned his age. He would dream that if he could. 

The roar of the rapid prevented him from hearing. With his back to the voice, he couldn’t see either. Turn his neck and he might tip the boat. It might have looked like he was struggling, out in the current and then back again, paddling. She probably thought he needed help. Ann and Ellen were friends through the local animal shelter. If he perished out here, would she dream about him the way he did those men in the planes? One came to him just last night, from Oklahoma, whose ancestors might have fished these waters.

Tired of keeping steady, he changed direction—it wasn’t hard to after all—and like a bird or plane on the wing, he tilted the boat and pointed into the powerful current. He made a few swift adjustments to avoid rocks. Amidst the jumble of boulders there was a line, a harmony only traceable to the birds soaring above. He thought he saw a figure, but he could barely see, waving as she was in the setting sun. 

Rick Van Noy has taught English and writing at Radford University for 25 years and is the author of several books, including Sudden Spring: Stories of Adaptation in a Climate-Changed South (Univ. of Georgia P, 2019), one of Book Riot’s best environmental books for readers who want to save the planet. His work has appeared in Orion, Creative Nonfiction, Terrain.org, Yes!, Blue Ridge Country, Watershed, Cold Mountain Review, and Iron Mountain Review.

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