Oxygen Falls – audio short story by Ithaka Darin Pappas

cover of Oxygen Falls by Ithaka Darin Pappas (paperback addition) from the series, Curson Avenue Archives

17 Apr Oxygen Falls – audio short story by Ithaka Darin Pappas

Audio book of “Oxygen Falls”




Oxygen Falls by Ithaka Darin Pappas (© 1991)

I’d been here fourteen days, ever

since they’d brought him home

from the hospital. And for

fourteen days in a row Zeus,

Athena and I had walked across

the cotton field, through the

lemon orchard, into The

Reservation and along the bank

of the canal until we reached

the base of Oxygen Falls.

The air here was thick with

humidity, the roar of water

threatening. Haunting and

intriguing at the same time.


Three years ago, he’d been

transferred here from his job at a

Los Angeles aerospace

corporation to their production

division in a rural area outside of

Phoenix. Unfortunately, my trip

wasn’t a family social visit.

My Pops was sick.

Terminal they’d called it,

I called it unfair.





These faded red letters, on a now

rusted-out piece of white sheet

metal, had been a never ending

subject of controversy and

speculation between Niles, Joe

and I during every holiday we’d

spent together since Pops and

April had moved here.


The sign was posted on the first

of two parallel, barbed-wire

fences guarding potential victims

from the hazards of the falls

behind them. Oxygen Falls in

actuality was a hundred-foot high

aerator weir slope just

downstream from the Red

Mountain Dam on the

Saguaro Indian Reservation.

The extensive Oxygen Falls

compound first corralled a section

of the Salt River into a wide

rectangular pond using a large

submerged barrier wall. It then

forcibly rereleased the water

through its spillways down a

descending eighth-of-a-mile long

boxy, narrowing concrete

waterway. This compressed the

river water volume from a surface

area of about 40-yards wide into

an end width of just twenty-five

feet, quadrupling its velocity. The

water then rocketed out of its

square cement chute and down

the eight-story, sixty-degree slope

into a churning, chaotic

maelstrom at the bottom. This

process whipped the water

abundantly full of oxygen

molecules, essential for impeding

algae growth and increasing crop

harvests. Immediately after this

frothy, turbulent area, the water

abruptly tranquilized…quieting

down into a deeper, wider body

of water known as Lower River or

South Canal, which eventually

dissected itself into several

smaller, slow-flowing canals and

dirt ditches, providing the

agricultural water supply of

eastern Phoenix.

For fourteen mornings in a row,

I’d stood here with my two friends

and reread the words:




wondering what exactly it meant.

An old Indian citrus-farmer,

whose land bordered the canal,

had once told my brothers and I

that the submerged obstructions

were in reference to underwater

rake-spikes; sharp, metal, vertical

bars mounted just underneath the

the surface of the white water at

the base of the falls that

prevented logs and other larger

debris that had managed to make

their way through the dam and

down the aerator slope from

continuing any further

downstream (potentially

clogging up the subsequent

farming canals and ditches).


that old Red doesn’t know shit,

proclaimed my stepbrother Joe,

an ex-marine, my elder of two


No….I think he may be right,

protested Niles, my other brother,

also two years older and the

brainiest of us three, I think I

read something about something

like that somewhere.

For the moment, I’d remained

undecided on the subject, but

had later asked Pops about it.

He’d said that the underwater

rakes did exist on some dams

and aerators, but on which ones

was impossible to tell, unless the

spillways were closed and the

water level low enough to expose

them. However, here at Oxygen

Falls, the water was kept flowing

year round, quenching the thirst

of the area’s perpetually arid


What do you guys think?

I asked Zeus and Athena.


howled Zeus.


echoed Athena in feminine

equivalent. Zeus and Athena,

brother and sister Rhodesian

Ridgebacks agreed on everything.

I sometimes wondered if they

even shared the same brain.

We walked back to the house

where April had been waiting for

  1. She had errands to do in town

and Pops couldn’t be left alone

in his condition.

I’ll see you in a couple of hours,

my stepmother said.

Ok…see you later, I replied.

I pulled out an old atlas from the

living room bookshelf and went

up to Pops’ room. He was asleep

so I began exploring its pages.

Are you ready to take the drop?

asked an unexpected voice.

It was my dad sleep talking.

What?! I asked.

Are you ready to take The Drop?,

he repeated.

I wasn’t exactly sure what he

meant, but even though he was

unconscious, I somehow knew

that the question had been

directed at me.

Um…yeah…I guess so…

what about you?

a sleep which he never

awoke from.


He died in a peaceful way which I

suppose is better than getting run

over by a UPS truck or catching a

stray bullet in a neighborhood

drive-by, but when it’s your Pops,

shit like that is of little



It was about two a.m. when the

last of the looky-loo neighbors,

the mortician with dad’s body

and the rest of the anonymous

weepers and mourners split.


I walked outside, got into the

family mini-van and flew out onto

the Beeline Highway. My speed

rarely dropping below ninety, as I

talked incessantly to a silent,

invisible father riding in the

passenger seat. The towns sped

by; Fountain Hills, Apache

Junction, Hohokam, Superstition.

In and out of the Tonto Forest,

through Sunflower and out past

twenty or so smaller settlements

until there was nothing but cactus

and stars. I stopped the van, got

out, laid on my back across the

yellow checkered dividing line

and looked directly up. The

biggest shooting star I’d ever

seen radiated by overhead, its

trail glowing for a full ten

seconds. It was one of those

infrequent, self-pitying moments

when I would question the

purpose of all existence; The

Earth, The Stars, Love, Hate, Life,

Death….it all seems like such a

cruel, heartless joke sometimes.


Exhausted and fatigued, I finally

got home midmorning. Niles and

Joe had already arrived in Arizona

and were giving me shit for

staying out all night.

April’s been worried

out of her fucking mind!!!,

they scolded.

I apologized, instantly morphing

the vibe more positively.

Although we all lived within an

hour’s drive of each other in

California, we rarely hung out. But

that night we drank beers, talked

about Pops, the old days back in

the South Bay and about all the

trouble we’d gotten ourselves

into. I was surprised to learn for

the first time that, on separate

occasions, both Niles and Joe

had both been arrested. How I’d

never found out remains a

mystery. And my dad, not being

one to rat, had never mentioned

anything about it or the healthy

sums of cash he’d shelled out for

their bail bonds.


However, I wasn’t being as open

with my older brothers as they

were being with me and hoped

Pops had been as equally

discreet about my own personal

fuck ups and had never told them

of my little run in with a particular

vixen from Lomita. An incident far

more regrettable and less heroic

than getting your ass thrown in

the slammer for a few hours.

If it’s at all possible for a funeral

to be a good thing, Pops’ was.

The youngish priest, Father Paul,

had been a good friend of my

dad and April and spoke to us

with his eulogy, not at us. His

message was very personal,

almost completely avoiding

any corny, generic post-death

sermonology. He even played

an acoustic, from-the-heart,

slightly altered cover version

of the Phil Coulter song “The Old

Man” part of which was;

He was more than just a father,

A teacher, my best friend.

He showed me things

Not known to kings

Like how to fish

And make a wish

Beside the Magic Sea

I miss him the old man


Toward the end of the service,

Father Paul had said something

that stuck into my head like a nail.

He’d spoken directly to Niles, Joe

and I.

Your father, being the man that

he was, would want you to go on

with your lives, living them to the



On the ride back to Pops and

April’s crib, that last part kept

playing and replaying in my

head over and over again:

living them to the fullest.

For me, in contrast to the urban

hell I’d inflicted upon myself four

years earlier by moving from the

beach into Hollywood, living life

to the fullest still meant getting

into the ocean regularly,

something I’d been less than

successful in accomplishing lately.

Of my last several attempts;

on one, I’d borrowed and

broken in half a friend’s favorite

board. On another, I contracted

a hideous bacteria-caused

ear infection. And on my last

try, while speeding west down the

Santa Monica Freeway at 6am

(to surf what I later heard was

uncrowded, absolutely

perfect five-foot Topanga),

I rear-ended a station wagon

full of Guatemalan cleaning

women en route to the Beverly

Hills mansions they were to

immaculāte. Coincidence maybe,


regardless, I felt that the almighty


Poseidon had put some kind of


restraining order on my surfing


rights. I decided to lay low for a


while and had been surviving


strictly on a surf mag fix.


When we got back to the house

after the funeral, I began

frantically searching the hall

closet, then the garage, then the

tool shed. And finally found it

behind the jacuzzi pump next to

the pool. I unfolded the yellow,

moldy plastic revealing a round,

inflatable swimming pool raft

about four-feet in diameter.

It resembled a giant holeless

donut complete with a

circumference of bright pink nylon

rope secured around the top of it

to use as leverage in case you

encountered any dangerous,

turbulent conditions within your

chlorinated utopia. Joe, stoned as

usual, came outside and after

several minutes of amusedly

watching me trying to inflate the

damn thing with my own breath


I think there’s a compressor

in the garage, bro.


Soon I was running, holding the

inflated raft clumsily on top of my

head, across the cotton field,

through the lemon orchard,

into The Reservation, along the

bank of the canal and up the

long hill until I was in front of the

double security fences at the

upper backside of the immense

cement structure. I frisbeed the

raft over the first fence, climbed

it, then tossed it gently over the

second, (this time barely clearing

the sharp barbs).


Seconds later, I was standing

above the rushing, funneling

channel of water leading to the

drop. I prepared to make my

jump, then hesitated. I set the raft

down, walked along the ridge of

the canal to the top of the falls

and took a last long look down to

the bubbling cauldron of frothy

water at the base, only imagining

what actually lay beneath.


In the far distance, I saw Niles and

Joe charging up the river bank

yelling as they ran, both armed

with about a mile of safety rope.

As they got closer, I realized Niles

was shouting something about

the rake-spikes and the possibility

of drowning in the current.


he shouted, barely audible above

the rumble of water.

THAT’S OK!!!, I yelled back,



Frenzied, I ran back to the raft

and grabbing it, hurled myself the

ten feet off of the vertical

embankment and into the racing

thirty mile-an-hour current below.

Landing on the raft, but losing

hold of the rope attached to it, I

was swept violently downstream

spinning like a top. Dizzy and

panicked, I had only one

conscious thought, going straight

down as I went over the falls…..

or I’d surely be discovering truth

about the rake-spikes headfirst. At

the last second, I somehow

managed to get it together.

Getting hold of the rope, I was

able to stop the spinning and

lift the forward side of the

raft into a kind of up-curved

bow then went straight over…….


I shrieked, flying down

what could be comparable

to dropping into 100-foot

Waimea Bay on a giant vinyl

apple-fritter, my stomach making

an ambitious attempt of escaping

up through my throat…


my velocity was multiplying all the

way down…..


Below me somewhere through

the spray, I caught a millisecond

glimpse of Niles and Joe near the

base looking like cowboys

preparing to rope cattle. By the

end of the drop, I had

accelerated to the point that the

raft wasn’t even really connecting

to the water’s surface. With the

point of impact rapidly

approaching, I strained to

make a last effort to get the front

of the raft up as high as possible



Like going over a ski jump, I

blasted right up and over the top

of the bubbling aquatic chaos,

airborn for at least fifteen feet

(safely above the submerged

spikes) and then sent skipping like

a thin stone on a puddle another

fifty feet into the calms of the

South Canal.


Several long seconds later, my

heart began beating again, my

emotion confusingly somewhere

between laughing and crying.

I ignored the rope Niles and Joe

eventually tossed my direction,

the thundering sound of water

leisurely dissipating behind me.


Underneath the cobalt Arizona

sky, I spent the next several hours

slowly drifting westward down the

canal; alongside of citrus farms,

waving Indian children, and finally

as I neared Pheonix, thru cookie

cutter suburban track-home

neighborhoods…all the while,

thinking about Pops and what life

would be like without him.

Several months later, I went to

visit April, Zeus and Athena.

When I drove over the tiny canal

bridge signifying the

neighborhood’s entrance, I

couldn’t see any water at all

flowing down the dirt trenches

into the citrus groves. Arriving at

the house, I immediately got the

dogs and headed up toward the

cotton field trail leading to the

river. For the first time in the three

years since I’d been coming here

Oxygen Falls was under repair.

The spillways were shut.

The river bed was dry.


There were no rake-spikes.





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