Bob Dylan Goes Tubing

One morning we came back from town to find a strange car parked under the white pines beside our cottage. An old Citroën, the kind where the chassis goes up …

Illustration by Thomas Libetti

One morning we came back from town to find a strange car parked under the white pines beside our cottage. An old Citroën, the kind where the chassis goes up and down hydraulically. Yellow. Nobody we knew drove a Citroën. Our son Ryan ran down the long switchback of wooden steps that lead to the lake.

“There’s somebody out on the lake,” he yelled, “on the air mattress.”

Paul shaded his eyes. A pale, small, but visibly adult figure, with a Tilley hat tied under his chin was paddling toward our dock.

“I need the binocs,” Paul said, and went and retrieved them from the cottage. He studied the figure for a long moment.

“This is really weird,” he said, “but whoever that is looks exactly like Bob Dylan.” He passed the binoculars to me. And it did look like him—a little guy with a pencil moustache, wearing Ryan’s flippers, on our air mattress.

“See? Only older.”

“Well, he is older.”

The figure paddled closer. Paul waved and called out.

“Hi. We’re back from town.”

I waved too. It could, remotely, be some friend of a friend, dropping by on his way up to another cottage. Our place had no phone, no email, and cell connection was dodgy because of the granite cliffs. Sometimes people we scarcely knew just turned up. “Yeah, I’m back too,” the Dylan-person called. Then he started singing in a slightly hokey, Nashville Skyline voice, “Back here on Kashagawigamog.”

That is, in fact, the name of a lake in North Ontario, but not ours. Ours is Sturgeon Lake.

“What do we do now? ” Paul asked.

“I don’t know. Offer him a drink? ”

He cupped his hands. “Come on up and join us, if you’re heading in.”

“Sure thing,” the floater said. I got a towel from the pump shed and went down to the dock. Bob Dylan—no question now, it was him—rolled off the mattress, careful to keep the brim of his hat dry. He slung the mattress up on the diving raft and did a credible breaststroke to the end of the dock, where he held on to the edge with thin white fingers.

“No ladder? ” He asked.

The nails on the baby finger on each hand were extra long, and filed square.

“Let me give you a hand.”

I leaned over, careful to keep my scoop-neck shirt from gaping, and Dylan grabbed hold of me like a big ropey eight-year-old. He was pale as a grub, with a dot of chin hair and that riverboat-gambler moustache he started wearing around Love and Theft. But his blue eyes were still strong and clear, and met mine. He whisked the water off his arms with his hands.

“Water’s real nice, once you get in.”

Dylan was wearing a pair of old-fashioned wool swimming trunks with a narrow white belt. Wet, they revealed a springy crescent of cock underneath. His skin was so white it looked translucent, but he had good biceps—from playing guitar, probably. His forearms had energy, and drew your eye.

He wrapped himself in my blue towel.

“Want to see the boathouse? ” asked Ryan. He led Dylan inside where he showed him our old green waterlogged Chestnut canoe slung up in the rafters and the aluminum boat we used for fishing. Ryan was nine and didn’t care or know who this skinny visitor was.

“The canoe leaks,” Ryan said, “but we can go tubing. My friend Trevor has a Chris-Craft with a Merc 120.”

“Sounds good,” Dylan said, using his hand to close one nostril as he blew out the other one to clear his sinuses. Then we all climbed the eighty-seven wooden trestle-ties up to the cottage, where Paul was waiting for us with the map spread out on the kitchen table.

“Okay, now, Bob, you’re here,” Paul said, pointing to Sturgeon Lake, a liver-shaped body of water northeast of Huntsville, “and Kashagawigamog is quite a ways over there.” Kash was closer to Bancroft. “Guess I kinda overshot it,” Dylan mumbled. “Nice ride up, though.”

I was staring into the fridge without being able to see anything. “Can I offer you something, Bob? Orange juice? A nice Stoli with some lemonade? We have cold beer, of course. Canadian beer.”

“Sure, that all sounds good. ‘Give it to me in a cup,’ he sang, ‘and let the queen dance with the jack.’” He was studying the map, circling some of the names that tickled him. “Arnprior,” he murmured with a faint lift of the moustache. “Madoc. Irondale.”

After some dithering, I mixed him a Red Needle—tequila, slice of lemon, and cranberry juice with lots of ice—and opened a couple of Coronas for us. Dylan downed his drink and fingered peanuts from a dish. “Madawaska,” he said, then underlined the name with a felt pen. Meanwhile Paul was standing in front of our CD collection, sweating over what to play for Bob Dylan.

“Sally, where’s that klezmer collection . . .”

“No,” I cried, leaping over to the CD player. “Play… play the remastered Etta James. Or that Robert Johnson one, did we bring that? ”

Dylan looked up from the map. “Got any old Valdy? ”

“Valdy.” Paul swivelled on his heels to me with panic-stricken eyes. “Now let me have a look.”

Valdy is a West Coast Canadian folksinger who had enjoyed a little plateau of fame in the 1970s. While Paul inverted his head to read the labels on the lowest shelf of CDs, Dylan wandered into the kitchen, looked in the fridge, and turned on the radio. The cbc news was just wrapping up.

“Good old Jim Curran,” said Dylan, putting chunks of brie on a row of Ritz crackers. “Talkin’ traffic.” He turned the volume up.

“Really? ” Paul said. “You listen to cbc? ”

“Oh yeah. The boys on the bus listen to npr and cbc all the time. It’s good for moving through the land.” Dylan took his plate of crackers over to the couch and sat down.

“I wrote a pretty good song about Gzowski a few years back.”

“You’re kidding,” Paul said.

“About this guy in a little green studio, smokin’ and talkin’ to people all over the country until one day the government burns down the radio station with him in it. Yeah, the band all likes the cbc. We get sick of watchin’ TV on the bus.”

“Huh,” Paul said. He was staring at Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations. Too manic for this time of day.

“I was gonna record it, but the record people said this guy was too obscure. Hurricane Carter, people have heard of, they said, but they don’t know Peter Gzowski.”

“Well, they would if you sang about it,” I pointed out. What about Hattie Carroll and William Zanzinger?

“Old Petey boy,” Dylan mused, “in that little green room.”

Ryan came in and said that Trevor and Angus down the lake were coming by to go tubing soon, and did Bob want to go? We explained tubing to Dylan—being dragged around the lake behind a power boat, while clinging to a large inflated rubber donut with handles. Like tobogganing fast, over water.

“Sure, I’ll give it a shot,” Dylan said. They headed down to the water, where Ryan got him a life preserver. Dylan tried to light a cigarette, hunching over his lighter, but it was too breezy. The big Chris-Craft chugged up to the dock. We watched the two of them climb in and roar off, as Dylan’s hat flipped straight up in the wind. He looked happy.

“What do we do when he gets tired of tubing? ” Paul said.

“Let’s worry about that later.” I hung the towels out on the line, lay down on our bed, and fell asleep. I wasn’t used to drinking before lunch.

Dusk was coming on. We had cocktails and listened to Lucinda Williams singing “Six Blocks Away.” I twirled the ice in my empty glass. Dylan stood at the big front window scowling at the horizon, which was bloody. His mood had changed.

“Look at the sun,” he snarled, “goin’ down over the sea.” He spider-walked one hand down the windowpane.

“The sky is erupting now / and I must take my leave.” He went into the guest bedroom. We heard him rummaging around in the dresser drawer and then he emerged, wearing a pair of Ryan’s flannel pajamas with a horse-and-buggy motif. He had a harmonica in one hand and a toothbrush in the other. It looked like mine.

“Okay if I drink the water? ”

“Go ahead, we just had it tested.”

At the kitchen sink he put his harmonica in a glass of water to soak, like a pair of dentures. For several minutes he scoured his teeth over the kitchen sink, brushing and spitting methodically. Then he flossed, making the floss pock in a rhythm. Then he rinsed.

“Think I’ll sleep down by the water tonight,” he said, before he grabbed his pack of American Spirits and banged out the screen door, with a striped Hudson’s Bay blanket slung over one shoulder. He headed down the path, toes gripping his flip-flops.

I stood at the window. Wrapped in the blanket, Dylan settled on our yellow plastic chaise at the end of the dock. I could see him through the birches, in the early lavender darkness. He took out a cigarette, lit it, broke up several more and threw the crumbs of tobacco to the minnows that dimpled the surface of the water. Further out on the lake, a pair of loons, long, black and plump, left a placid W behind them. This was the time of evening when the fish fed, and unseen bugs made circles on the water that looked as if a light rain was falling.

Then it was finally dark. I left the window and Paul lit a fire in the woodstove. In his room, Ryan had fallen asleep over a Spider-Man comic book. I turned off his light.

A little later, I went down to give Dylan a flashlight and some bug repellent. He was fooling around with the harmonica.

“If you hear rustling in the woods, it’s just raccoons. But they won’t bother you on the dock.”

“Frogs are jumpin’, toads are croakin’ / seems like everything is broken,” he half sang in his cigarette-frayed voice.

“Goodnight, Bob. Sleep tight.”

“Hey Sal, you too.”

We watched the moonless night sky for a moment. The stars were all out, coming at us in smithereens. Coldness radiated off of the lake. A shooting star fell down through the blackness, like a magnet slipping.

And so, without a word of explanation, Bob Dylan became a guest at our cottage. A week passed, then another. Every morning he got up first—we would hear him plunge off the dock, thrash out to the raft, and then swim back again. He got into the local Chelsea buns. “Like the hotel? ” he asked when I gave him his first one. Most afternoons he went tubing with Ryan and the boys.

“It’s not too different from being on the road with the band, just more fun,” he explained.

Sometimes Paul and I would stand on the dock with the binoculars, and watch him bump over the waves behind Trevor’s boat, thinking “Bob Dylan is tubing on our lake.” It was pretty unreal. But Canadian summers are so short that everything about them feels a bit like a dream. You expect to wake up any minute. Our friends would always swear up and down they’d visit, but they never made it. I understood; the city is jealous and won’t let people go. We were only renting the cabin, and we didn’t socialize too much. So it was just the four of us that August—me, Ryan, Paul, and Dylan.

The cottage was small and old-fashioned, with partitions between the three bedrooms that didn’t go all the way up. With Dylan next door, Paul and I had to make love like hostages, scarcely moving. I developed a taste for it that way. One night, not long after his arrival, we had flipped our covers down to get at each other more quietly when we heard Dylan on the other side of the wall, talking in his sleep.

“Someone’s got it in for me,” he said, clearly and loudly. “They’re planting stories in the press.”

“Just let me check on him,” I whispered to Paul. I slipped into his room and there he was, an aging poet in horse-and-buggy pajamas, his white feet uncovered. Now he was mumbling. I put my hand on his brow and he settled down. I tucked him in. He looked so young asleep.

The next morning he emerged with a rumpled face, unsmiling. I microwaved his oatmeal.

“Bad night? ”

“Bad dreams. Joanie dreams. She won’t let go.” He spread a good half-inch of cold butter on his bun. I was buying two a day at this point.

“Did you hear the loons? ”

“Yeah. Same first notes as “Wichita Lineman.”

It was cloudy out, and the lake looked too rough for tubing. Paul was playing Monopoly with Ryan, and crowing about having eight hotels. Dylan sat down beside them.

“Want to play? ” Ryan asked Dylan, giving him a silver candlestick from the Clue game as his marker. Dylan sat at the board, eating his oatmeal and shaking the dice. I heard him thump his marker smartly as he moved around the board. I decided it was a good day to make a lamb stew that could slow cook in the oven. In no time, Dylan had snagged three railroads, as well as Park Place and Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle,” Dylan sang, zipping his candlestick around the board, an unlit cigarette hanging off his lip. We let him smoke inside, but he didn’t push it.

“Hurry up and roll,” Ryan said morosely. Paul gazed out the window at the choppy grey lake. He disliked board games. He was looking a little fed up. Sooner or later, I realized, we were going to have to do something about Bob Dylan.

“I think we should put the chairs in the boathouse,” I said, looking pointedly at Paul. “The wind’s coming up.”

“I’m sure he’ll leave soon,” I told him when we were down by the lake, out of earshot. “He just needs to rest.”

“But what if he doesn’t? What if he ends up living with us, or coming back down to the city with us? ”

“Sooner or later somebody’s going to come looking for him. He’s world-famous, for God’s sake. He’s supposed to be on tour.”

“Plus,” Paul said, “the guy eats like a horse, in case you haven’t noticed. When you factor in gas for the outboard, and all those cartons of American Spirit I bring back from town, it starts to add up.”

“He’s rich. Money probably never crosses his mind.”

“Well, it should. It crosses mine.”

“Give him a bit more time, honey. It’s good for Ryan, he’s teaching him chords on the guitar. We could have nipped it in the bud on the first day, but at this point it’d be rude to kick him out.”

“And I don’t appreciate the way he goes around making fun of Dwight Yoakam when he can see he’s in our CD wallet.”

“That’s just him.”

“Why are you defending him? You let him get away with murder playing Scrabble—you didn’t even challenge zydeko. Zydeko? You wouldn’t take that shit from me.”

“I’m not defending him, I just think he likes it here. It’s good for him. And I like it when he sings for us.”

“Right. When he can remember the words.”

If you asked Bob directly, he wouldn’t sing. But if you set up a good situation, he would sidle over to Ryan’s cheap acoustic guitar and ease into a song. One chilly night—August was almost over—we made a bonfire outside. Dylan wrapped himself in the Bay blanket and sang “Farewell, Angelina,” followed by “Tangled Up in Blue.” He played with his head bowed, picking with one hand propped up on his right baby finger. His voice was hard-edged and lovely, like an old sharpened knife. He made up a song for Ryan, called “The Man in the Loon.” It was about a boy who fell into the lake and was raised by a pair of loons, so he grew up thinking he was a bird.

“Slept in a rowboat / swam through the reeds,” he sang, “livin’ in the river / where the crawfish feeds.”

After that he did that Beach Boys song, “In My Room,” changing the chorus to “In My Loon.” Ryan played along on his little synthesizer keyboard. “Play ‘Surfer Girl’ now,” I pleaded. But Dylan put the guitar aside, threw his cigarette into the woods, and went off to bed like a tiny king, his quilt sweeping up the pine needles behind him.

That night in bed, Paul turned to me.

“Were there any messages when you went to town? Doesn’t he have a manager or something? ”

A mosquito hovered. I let it land on my arm, waited, then smacked it. “Nope. We’re it, I guess.”

“Anyone else would at least buy the odd bottle of wine,” Paul said, rolling away. “Talk about out of touch.”

“The man is lost,” I said, “that’s all.”

For some reason, Ryan got the best bed in the cottage. It was a new firm mattress, wrapped in a zippered plastic bag that rustled noisily whenever he flipped about in his sleep. Our bed was bigger, but old and it sagged. Since Paul was six foot two, his weight in the middle left me feeling as if I was clinging to the crest of the mattress all night long. The room had just enough space for the bed and a dresser with one stuck drawer. On hot nights, I would often move to the screened-in porch to sleep on the sofa bed. I liked feeling the cushions up against my back, and my feet solid against the tufted upholstered arms.

I was settled with a duvet on the sofa bed one night, as a cool current of air from the lake flowed stealthily over me. I could feel the presence of the lake, like a sleeping dog. The call of the loons was preternaturally clear and loud, notes breathed into a bamboo instrument. Sometimes the laughter of a party would carry over from the other side of the lake, but that night it was perfectly quiet. I listened to the sounds of breathing—Paul, even and deep. Ryan, turning often and rustling his plastic. Nothing from Dylan’s room. Then I heard someone get up and use the bathroom. “Ryan? ” “No.” “Oh, Bob, sorry.” Dylan, wrapped in the blanket, came into the porch. His feet were long and narrow and white. I could smell tobacco and the strange lanolin cream he used on his hands and nails. Bag balm, he called it, something farmers used on cracked cow udders.

“Quarter moon, Sal,” he whispered. Through the trees, I could see the bone-coloured crescent.

I thumped the edge of the sofa. “Sit here.”

Shivering, Dylan tried to keep his blanket from slipping off while he lit a cigarette.

“Mind? ”

“Be my guest.”

He sat down on the sofa.

“Can’t sleep? ” he asked.

“It’s cooler on the porch.”

“Yeah, the air is sweet.”

The smell of his cigarette was rough and pleasant—sometimes tobacco smelled so good. I brought my knees up, uncovering my feet. He took them in his cool hands and absentmindedly stroked them, as if they were a cat that had found its way onto his lap.

“I can only really sleep on the bus,” he said. “It never feels right if I’m not moving.”

His hands felt so alive on my skin. A kind of swarming intelligence came off them. He put out his cigarette in a saucer on the windowsill. A loon breathed its shaky note. Dylan’s hands stroked further up my leg, like a masseur, following the line of the calf muscle.

“Swimmer’s legs,” he said.

“Not any more.”

“I like to watch you move around this place.”

He shivered.

“Here,” I said, lifting up the duvet. “Get warm.” He slipped like quicksilver out of his blanket and under mine. He was smooth as the handle of a knife, slim as a boy, cool as china. His beard didn’t scratch too much when we kissed. I froze, listening for Paul’s near-snore, which rasped on, and Ryan’s rustling plastic. “You are a jewel,” Dylan breathed into my ear. “A precious shining jewel.”

The skies were turning a harder, more brilliant blue, and the lake water now appeared more solid and navy blue. The water was almost too cold for swimming. The mist that rose from the surface of the lake each morning took longer each day to lift. The top leaves of a few maples were red.

Our porch encounter was never repeated, nor mentioned. Paul suspected nothing, and he even began to warm to Dylan when the two of them started playing his old vinyl Johnny Cash albums. Paul found a Valdy record, Smorgas Bard, at a garage sale in town and gave it to Dylan. So they made their connection. As for me, on the rainy afternoons when Ryan lay on the couch reading old National Geographics with his headphones on, and the two men were listening to Johnny Cash sing “Girl from the North Country,” I couldn’t have been happier. All my men at peace, under one roof.

Then one Sunday morning, early, I heard the Citroën turn over, stealthily, and catch. I heard the car revving in reverse, as it slowly backed down our gravel road, swishing past the tall poplars.

“He’s gone,” I whispered to Paul.

“Probably just went to town for smokes.”

“It’s Sunday. Nothing’s open this early.”

We got up, expecting a note, or possibly a cheque, but there was no sign of anything. I went into his room; the bed was neatly made. Ryan’s sock monkey with the Xs for eyes leaned against the pillow. In the kitchen I noticed that the latest box from the bakery was gone.

“He fucking took my bun,” said Paul. He went to check the row of albums, “and Smorgas Bard too.”

When Ryan woke up, we told him Bob had to leave early, to catch a plane, to go back on tour. He was disappointed because they were right in the middle of learning “You Never Can Tell” by Chuck Berry.

“He’s on the road most of the year,” I reminded him. “Next time he comes through town, I’m sure he’ll look us up.”

“A hundred bucks we never hear from him again,” said Paul.

But I am a romantic. I didn’t need to see him again.

A few days later, when we were packing up the cottage, we took the boat over to Arnie’s marina to go into storage. Arnie winched the boat up the rails and out of the water.

“Before I forget, there’s a letter here for you,” he said as we were paying up in his office full of life jackets and fishing nets. He handed us an enveloped addressed to Ryan, care of Warners’ Marina, Sturgeon Lake. He finally got that right. It was written on motel stationery from a Best Western in Boise, Idaho.

Ryan, Didn’t want to wake you up, but thanks for all the rides, man—and the chorus is just the same, A, D, E, only barre chords sound better. Tube on, Bobby

The owners of our cottage, Sheila and Tony, lived in a bigger place on the next lake over. When we got back from the marina, they were waiting for us, sitting round the seldom-used picnic table over the septic tank, where the grass was long and green.

“Tim’s firm has transferred him to Toronto,” Tony began, “which we’re happy about, of course.”

Tim was their married son and it turned out that his family wanted to take over the cottage next summer. They felt badly, but they really had no choice.

“I can still go to camp, though? ” Ryan asked.

I felt I ought to tell them something about our guest, but I didn’t know what to say. Watch out for Bob Dylan?

So that’s what happens when you rent. You have to be prepared to move on. But we would find a new lake; the north was littered with lakes. Or try Quebec, where prices were lower.

One thing bothered me when we got back to the city, though. Somehow, in all the packing and unpacking, I had lost Dylan’s note to Ryan. Our time with him had become a family secret—something that might or might not have taken place. Like the dream of summer when you try to think of it in winter. The tube was stowed in the garage, and the gyres of autumn began to turn and mesh.

In January, Dylan’s new album, Madawaska, came out. When I heard the title, my heart raced. Paul downloaded it as soon as it showed up online, and the two of us sat at the computer, scanning the song titles. None rang a bell. Maybe I was afraid of, or hoping for, something called “Precious Jewel,” or “Swimmer’s Legs.” The music was traditional bluegrass, with fiddles, and Emmylou Harris singing ethereal harmony with Dylan on the title tune: “And all along the Madawaska / I’ve been thinking of the night / When the moon rose up in splendour / And your step was young and light.” A plain song, like “Red River Valley.” Paul played it twice, and neither of us spoke. Maybe that was it, my sign. Another song, fast and driving, was an incredible story about a stable full of famous race horses that burns to the ground.

Later, in the middle of the night, I got up and played “Madawaska” again, with the headphones on. There was another line in it, about night air cool as water. My guess would be that it was Sturgeon Lake air. I went ahead with that in my mind. Everyone craves evidence, after all, evidence that a time was real, even for five minutes.

Marni Jackson
Marni Jackson is the author of four books, including Don't I Know You and The Mother Zone.
Thomas Libetti
Thomas Libetti was included in the thirty-first edition of American Illustration.