River
runners

In the second installment of the RL Fiction Project, author and acclaimed book designer Chip Kidd writes a short story inspired by an iconic Ralph Lauren ad. (Oh, and he designed the cover, too.)

“Wear it like a hat, Daddy! Ha-HA!”

Sydney bounded in front of him, a backpack in each hand, dragging them along the pebbled stretch of bank along the Schuykill, toward the cabin in the woods less than 100 yards away. He could see her only from the legs down now and checked the temptation to tilt his head up. Not a good idea.

This was a balancing act.

“Canoe hat, canoe HAT,” she chimed. “It’s the perfect size! Ha-HA!”

Ankles. Now she was just ankles and moccasins. At a good clip. Clip-clop, clip-clop.

“Race you!”

“Thanks a lot,” he said, his voice echoing in the boat shell. “Not fair. Slow down, girleen.”

Back when he was on the crew team at Temple, they used to carry the sculls this way—overhead—at practice to and from the boathouse. That was 10 years ago. The team now was just him and Syd. We’re short a crew member, he thought. To say the least.

“Syd, I can’t see you. Slow down, please.”

The boat wasn’t that heavy—powder-coated aluminum—but it was bulky and dulled his pace. He couldn’t run to keep up with her, just a trot. A power walk? He felt as if he had no power at all. She was 7½ years old. She had all the power.

“Last one there is a rotten omelet!” she squealed.

But that was more than all right. She was laughing. She was running. She seemed to be doing OK. That mattered more than anything.

• • •

He was nearly 8 himself when Dad took him fishing down the Schuykill for the first time. He hated fishing, or at least the idea of it, but he loved Dad, and Tom Sawyer. Plus, he soon learned it wasn’t really about fishing at all. It was about getting away, about the virtues of doing nothing on a glowing Saturday afternoon, listening to a Phillies game on the transistor while surrounded by water. And maybe even getting a sip of beer (just one!) if he promised not to tell Mom.

• • •

This river canoe trip was his idea, but Sydney liked it anyway. He had thought of it three months before, on a trip with Syd to the Philadelphia Art Museum. She had stopped to look at Sketch of Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, by Thomas Eakins.

“Where’s his face?” she asked.

“Well, it’s just a sketch. He obviously didn’t get to finish it. Do you know what river that is?”

No response. She was always silent when she didn’t know the answer to something. Why try to guess?

“It’s the Schuykill, less than a mile from here,” he said. “I used to row boats on it like that, too.”

“Why is it called the School Kill?”

“Skoo-kill, one word. I actually don’t know.” And he should have known, he thought sheepishly. He had certainly spent enough time on it through the years.

“A river that kills schools,” she said.

“No. It’s probably an Indian name. It’s—”

“Schools of fish!”

“Ha. No, it’s—”

“In buses! Big, full, yellow fish school buses, and the bridge breaks and they fall into the water. And the river thinks they’re dead.” She didn’t seem sad about this, just curious, playing it out in her head.

“That is SO not true,” he said, eager to get her out of this frame of mind. “Let’s look it up when we get home.”

“But the river doesn’t know that the fish can swim, and so . . .”

She hesitated. He had no idea where this was going.

“So they pop out of the buses and say, ‘SURPRISE, we’re alive, ha-HA!’”

And she skipped down the hall to go see Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Three-Way Plug, her all-time favorite.

• • •

The hidden river. That’s actually what it meant, so named by the Dutch in the 17th century because of the dense vegetation along much of its banks. This made perfect sense when he thought about it—there was always something concealed about the river to him, even as it gave on to the Philly skyline in the homestretch of the Head of the Schuykill regatta.

It was always more of a mirror than a window

• • •

He reached the cabin path, knelt and rolled the boat as gently as he could onto its hull with a hollow thud. He stood and stretched.
Riverrunners_inset.jpg
The Bruce Weber photo that inspired “Riverrunners”

She was nowhere in sight. He waited for her to appear like magic.

“Syd!” he yelled into the wet August evening air, to the slow cricket chirps, the dull plaints of mourning doves and the ever-present chorus churn of moving water in the near distance.

I can hear you, but I can’t see you, he thought.

“Sydney!”

Come on, girleen, make some noise.

Stop this nonsense. Stop kidding around.

No response.

He trod heavily, both from fatigue and a brewing sense of unease, up the path to the cabin. The key was under the rock, as ever. The wrought iron latch of the door handle clicked softly under his thumb. The main room smelled of earth, wood, wet clay. Of fires that had died a long time ago.

Of course, she wasn’t here. She didn’t have the key. Fight the panic, fight the panic. He felt for the toggle switch of the floor lamp and flipped it on. A small gust of gnats bloomed in the glow under the shade, ecstatic. It was too still in here. He should throw open some windows.

Not yet.

He walked back out to the porch. The last of the day’s light was fading. What then?

“Surprise!” She darted out from behind one of the Adirondack loungers. He breathed again.

“Don’t DO that!” he said too loudly, then held her to him like a life preserver. Which she was. What he meant to say and couldn’t: “Don’t DO that. Don’t kill me and bring me back to life in less than two seconds.”

She giggled and pushed away. “Let’s make a fire, Daddy.”

He hesitated, staring. The miracle of her exhausted him. “After we go back and get the oars and the float jackets, remember?”

“Okay, readysetGO!!” And she was off like a shot.

Down the path and to the riverbank, running. Running like a kid was supposed to. Running like there was no other way to get there. Running back to life.

“You’re on, Squirt,” he said quietly, to himself more than anyone, and jogged after her, with her in full sight this time. It wasn’t really a race. Of course he would let her win. This was a balancing act.

When RL Magazine stumbled across the iconic Bruce Weber advertising image that served as this fiction project’s inspiration, we immediately thought of Chip Kidd. Strongly masculine with a woodsy, all-American feel, the 1987 photograph jibes perfectly with Kidd’s legacy as a designer of richly layered book covers. A lover of preppy style (he states, with some nostalgia, that Ralph Lauren’s now-shuttered Rugby brand was his favorite to wear), comic book superheroes and complicated tales, Kidd has attracted a cult following among book and design lovers over the years. With a portfolio that includes the cover art for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and a slew of DC Comics retrospectives (several of which he cowrote), Kidd manages to translate a diverse library of written stories into visual art worth displaying on the bookshelf cover-side out.

A graduate of Penn State University, Kidd first went to work at the publishing imprint Alfred A. Knopf in 1986, where he continues to serve, now as the associate art director, and has won numerous awards and accolades. When not redefining book design, he has managed to publish two novels, titled The Cheese Monkeys and The Learners, and the graphic novel Batman: Death by Design. He also designed and, with Lisa Birnbach, cowrote True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World, a sequel of sorts to Birnbach’s 1980 book The Official Preppy Handbook. As recognizable for his dapper, Ivy League–inspired style as for his many cover designs, which Publishers Weekly has described as “creepy” and “unpredictable,” the New York resident maintains a sense of humor and humility. When, for example, RL Magazine reached out to confirm receipt of his story’s first draft, Kidd responded with, “I’m so relieved you like it; I was starting to worry.”

We don’t just like it, Kidd. We love it.

Chip Kidd
  • COVER DESIGN BY CHIP KIDD
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY BRUCE WEBER; COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN CORPORATION
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY WESTON WELLS; COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN CORPORATION