One Sunday morning in late spring when I was twelve, about to turn thirteen, I woke up with a hangover. I felt my pulse pounding through my temples. My stomach was unsure. I tasted the sweetness of cola and rum further distilled into something rotten in the back corners of my mouth.
“Get up, Joe,” Ruth, my sister, said, sticking her head in my bedroom door. “You gotta get out of here.”
I sat up, magnifying the pain and uncertainty. “What?” But Ruth was already gone. I heard the clank and rustle of beer cans and liquor bottles piling together in a garbage bag. I went to stand, but was pulled back by the headphones still on my head and tethered to my stereo. I’d passed out listening to a mix tape Shaun had given me that Friday after school. I slipped the headphones off, looked over at the tape deck, and remembered about the canoe trip Shaun and I were supposed to take that morning.
“Damnit.” I got back up.
“Can you drive me over to Shaun’s?” I asked as I stumbled up the hallway.
When I emerged into the living room, Ruth was on her knees, scrubbing hard at a stain on the coffee table. A large black garbage bag in the center of the room overflowed with bottles and cups and pizza boxes. A haze hung in the air, of liquor fumes and stale cigarette smoke.
“Take your bike,” Ruth said. “I’ve got to get this place back to new before Mom and Dad get home.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
Ruth stopped scrubbing and looked at me. For a second she almost appeared concerned, but then frustration returned to her face, bordering on annoyance.
“All the more reason for you to get out of here, OK? Mom and Dad can’t find out about this or I won’t be able to leave my room for the rest of senior year. Go on, Joe.”
And then she was on to the next spot, scrubbing, her hair falling into her face.
I went out the side door to the fenced-off storage yard where we kept the bikes, old cans of paint, tools, and lawn mower. An older kid was curled up on a pile of paint-spattered drop cloths, one of the cloths pulled over him. I stuck my head back in the door.
“Ruthie!” I yelled.
She had the vacuum cleaner screaming. It didn’t stop. I called her name again, with still no response.
“Screw it,” I said, then I stepped over the guy and wheeled my bike out to the driveway, hopped on, and started the ride across town.
“Across town” was no big deal, not in that town, in those days. It felt like a journey, riding the sidewalk past the new cemetery, the football stadium, the park, the Country Club golf course, across the Valley Creek bridge and then through the gate and into the old cemetery. But that part only took about five minutes. A cool ride under live oaks, past Confederate dead resting beneath mossy, granite slabs and monuments, then out the back gate of the cemetery, and then it was only another five minutes of antebellum cottages into downtown. A total of ten minutes of riding and I was already crossing Broad Street and into the black side of town.
The large old buildings on the bluff of the river tamed down into a bramble of docks, warehouses, and mechanics’ shops, then quiet streets lined in trash trees and streaming vines, some streets paved and some not, and little bungalow neighborhoods.
After twenty minutes of riding that felt like an hour to my soured stomach, I coasted my bike into a patchy, grass yard in front of a house painted dark green, a wide concrete front porch extending before it. Shaun sat on the steps, his chin cupped in his hands.
“Starting to think you wasn’t coming,” he said.
I saw his mom looking out at us from behind the front screen door. I heard her sigh, and then she disappeared back into the house.
“I slept longer than I meant to. Ruth had a party last night while my parents were up in Tuscaloosa seeing Lilah at the University. Parents’ weekend.”
“You look like hell done ate you up.” Shaun stepped down off the porch and started walking around to his backyard. I propped my bike against the side of his house and followed.
“I feel like it, too, or like I ate hell up myself and my stomach didn’t agree with it.” Shaun and I laughed, even though it wasn’t really that funny, what I said.
Behind his house, a shady yard stretched to some trees about a hundred feet back. Tumbled against the undergrowth by the tree line was a beat-up old aluminum canoe.
Shaun had told me Friday at lunch that he’d got a canoe, and I told him I canoed plenty in scouts, and he told me that was fine, that I could teach him on Sunday morning, that we could take it down into the river. I’d told him it would be like a Huck Finn adventure. He’d told me he wasn’t no goddamned Jim. I’d said that was fair enough.
“It’s your uncle’s?” I asked.
“Yeah. He said I could have it. When he was lying there in the hospital not talking to nobody else. You sure you know how to do one of these things?”
Shaun grabbed two wooden paddles from the weeds, and we each held an end of the canoe and dragged it down a hill through the woods from his backyard. We came out on a muddy flat by the river.
“This is sweet,” I said. “I thought having the creek by my house was awesome, but you’ve got the Alabama River in your backyard.”
“Yeah, but it floods, though, about every year,” Shaun said.
“Well the creek floods, too, when the river backs into it. Fills up the whole bottom. The river ever get up into your house?”
“Naw. Just up into the yard. One year we were catching big brim off the back porch and mom was frying them up in the kitchen before they were even dead.” We pushed the tip of the canoe out into the water.
“You get in first,” I said. I held it steady while Shaun took one of the paddles and tight-roped down the middle of the boat until he was sitting on the front seat. I slipped off my tennis shoes and threw them into the back of the canoe. I pushed the canoe farther into the water, its bottom scraping along the mud, my feet slipping in the glop until I was up to my knees in the river. Little, sharp sticks poked my soles. I swung one foot over the side and landed on the back seat, my other leg trailing in the water as I reached across to grab the other paddle out of the bottom of the boat. The canoe rocked perilously close to taking on water.
“Damn, Joe, I thought you knew how to do this!”
“I’m feeling off balance today a little. Calm down.” Truth was I thought I was going to hurl. I brought my other leg over, and our rocking smoothed into a glide. “Where should we go?”
“Bridge and back. It’s just around the bend a ways.” We paddled out toward the middle of the river, enough to get away from all the snags along the bank, then I dragged my paddle on our right and the nose of the canoe swung quickly in the direction of the bridge. We sped along with the river, dipping our paddles in, alternating sides.
“This is easy,” Shaun said. “Don’t even have to think about it.”
“Call out if you see any logs or anything so I can steer us around it.” I let Shaun worry about what was in front, and I watched along the bank, hoping to see something interesting. In spring, I sometimes saw strange birds, maybe on their way back up north. It was hot. I started to sweat off the effects of the night before, though my head still pounded.
“So what was a high school party like?” Shaun asked.
“I don’t know. Soon as I got into the house after Tom’s mom dropped me off from the soccer tournament, Ruth gave me a big cup of coke, poured rum in it, and told me I could have it if I stayed in my room and didn’t bother them any.”
“You drank rum?” Shaun asked, turning around to look at me.
“Yeah. Don’t tell anyone. I’ll get into all kinds of trouble.”
“What was it like?”
“It was sweet. And I felt all dizzy. And then I just put on my headphones to block out the noise of the party and all the music was real good—that mix you made is killer—and I just listened to it all loud, and then pretty much the next thing I knew it was morning and I felt like a gutted catfish.”
“Damn,” Shaun said. He turned around and kept paddling.
“Right,” I said. “Don’t know what the big deal about it all is.”
We heard the whine of a boat motor coming up from behind. A little open boat came fast down the river, towing a skier. An older, shirtless boy was hunched over the wheel, and three girls in bikini tops were seated by him, laughing. They didn’t slow at all as they approached and passed us. Another older boy was on a single ski at the end of the rope, and he swung out wide to the side until he was bearing straight down on our canoe. As he came in close, he swerved, throwing a wall of water toward us. We heard the boat’s motor roar and the girls laughing. I didn’t mind being wet. It helped shock me a little more to my senses.
But then the motorboat made a wide turn in the river up ahead, keeping up speed. They set up to come for another pass. Again the boat came on, then turned to swing the skier toward us. This time he kept his line straight, and as he passed within feet of our canoe he took one hand off the ski rope and flipped the bird at us. The boy in the boat and the three girls with him laughed even harder than before. Looking back, I guess we were an easy target on the river that day. The motorboat kept speeding back up the river in the direction from which it had come.
“Really?” I said to Shaun. “They going to flip off kids like they’re some big stuff or something?” The motor boat’s wake rocked us heavily, so I pushed the paddle against the water to turn us perpendicular to the wake, pointed at the shore, so we wouldn’t overturn.
“Don’t worry or nothing,” Shaun said. “If it meant something every time some white kids drove by the house flipping birds and yelling ‘nigger’ or something, I’d just be scared all the time.”
“Guess there’s no point in that,” I said, no clue how I’d deal with it if I were him. I turned the canoe so we were headed again toward the bridge. Though I live now in a fairly cosmopolitan city, and hang out with friends who are shocked to hear it, back in the 1980s in that small town where Shaun and I grew up there was no surprise in folks flipping birds at kids or yelling “nigger,” at least if they were bigger or older or in a faster car. The passage of time meant little there. Once, after I’d gone off to college, I was driving on the interstate outside Montgomery and saw a billboard put up by the visitors’ bureau of my home county, with pictures of plantation homes and women in hoop skirts and civil war cannons, proclaiming in large letters, “HISTORY LIVES!” I laughed at it then, perhaps bitterly. But when I was still twelve and hung over in Shaun’s uncle’s canoe, it was just how a Sunday afternoon went.
“Log ahead,” Shaun called out. I feathered my paddle to our right, taking us a little closer to the bank. The log seemed to hold still in the flow of the river, perhaps an old tree pulled down during a flood, snagged and held in place on the river bottom. But then it seemed to move against the current.
“You know, it might not be a log,” Shaun said, and of course right then we could both see that it wasn’t, that what had appeared to be two knots near the leading edge of it were actually two eyes glowing gold, that the “trunk” trailing it was actually a body and long tail, all told maybe twelve feet of armored skin and muscle, swishing side to side evenly and powerfully, that before its eyes were jagged teeth lined along its snout, that its eyes watched us closely, studying us as we came even and passed within twenty feet of each other, that all was quiet, except a “garumph” from the direction of the gator and the dripping of water from our paddles, which we held out over the water, not daring to dip them in and mimic a helpless dinner. We watched to make sure it kept going in the other direction, the direction from which we’d come, that it wasn’t turning to follow us.
“Damn,” I said.
“No shit,” Shaun said.
We resumed paddling, in silence. I don’t know if Shaun was consumed by thoughts about racist teenagers and man-eating gators, or about his dead uncle, or what. I was watching the surface of the water all around us, worried about what might come next. Snakes, I figured, thick-as-your-arm cottonmouths, or the Loch Ness monster’s Alabama cousin.
As we approached the bend in the river that would swing us around to where we would see the bridge and downtown clinging to the bluff, I looked up in the branches of the trees lining the bank. We were pretty close to the bank after the run-in with the boat and the gator, and I saw a girl or young woman hanging from a tree in her best Sunday dress, a long yellow satin ribbon swaying out from her body in the breeze.
“Shaun, look,” I said, pointing, not sure if we should go in closer and try to lower her down.
“I see her,” Shaun whispered, “be quiet.” Before I could figure out why I needed to be quiet, the girl dropped down to another branch and I could see it was just the dress, with no girl inside. The girl—indeed, young woman—was further up the bank, the spring leaves of the trees barely obstructing our view of her pale, naked skin.
I heard her voice, but couldn’t make out what she was saying. Then we saw the guy behind her, and he was naked, too, and his eyes were wide. He looked scared, and that’s when it hit me that what the girl had been saying was “Don’t worry, nobody can see us down here,” but the guy saw us and he ducked down and yelled, “Get out of here, damn kids!” And Shaun and I dug hard with our paddles and I knew we were going to get shot or something, though I don’t know where I thought either of them could have been hiding a gun. I knew we were seeing something we weren’t supposed to, not back then, anyway, when the closest you could get to sex when you were a kid was finding a friend’s dad’s stash of Playboys in the tool shed behind their house.
Shaun yelled “Fuck!” as we paddled hard. We never really used that word much. None of our friends did, but it seemed appropriate. We quickly were out away from the bank and turning the bend. Nobody shot at us, or even threw rocks at us. I chanced a glance behind, and saw the couple with their clothes grabbed up and running as fast as they could farther into the woods. When I turned around, the bridge and the downtown were in front of us.
Living in it, the town seemed so big. It contained our entire childhoods, which were our lives, and it contained schools and homes and churches and fights and drunks and courthouses and fire stations and bullies and tire shops and even a peppermint candy factory and five grocery stores and six barbecue joints and a pizza restaurant and three discount stores and a mall out on the bypass. But up on the bluff over the Alabama River, it looked small. It looked like a toy village. Yet it was full of so much history, contained times before Shaun and I ever were around.
The bridge swooped like a silver hawk, ready to catch up the town in its talons. It was massive and definite. Its dominant feature was a large metal parabola soaring from one bank to the other, grid work holding a concrete decking high above the water, for all the cars and trucks entering and leaving the town. The bridge had been named for a lawyer from the 1800s who, during the Civil War, was captured four different times by the Union, but made his way up to the rank of Brigadier General. After the War, he became a Grand Dragon of the Klan, then a U.S. Senator from Alabama. I was learning all about him during my seventh grade Alabama History class that year that Shaun and I went canoeing on the river.
“It’s hot,” Shaun said.
“I know.” I was starting to wilt. Each event on our trip cleared the rum fog a bit, but then it descended again. I steered us under the bridge, where a concrete revetment sloped down to the water at a gradual enough angle that we could step out. As soon as we were parallel to the pavement, Shaun got out and held the canoe in place while I stepped out. He pulled a piece of rope from where it was tied to the front of the canoe, and we walked up the slope to one of the bridge girders, where he tied it off. We sat down on the cool, bridge-shaded concrete. Shaun dug in his pocket and brought out two mashed up granola bars.
“Thanks,” I said, and we pulled broken pieces of granola out of the wrappers and ate them while we rested.
“So you think there’s always so much stuff happening on the river?” he asked.
“I don’t know. You mean like the skiing and the gators and the sex?”
We both chuckled, and then we were full-bore laughing, holding our sides. Sex was still funny when we were twelve.
“Did you see the look on that man’s face?” Shaun yelled out through a mouthful of granola crumbs.
“His face? I was looking at the girl! I ain’t no fool.”
When we caught our breath, Shaun asked, “You think we knew her?”
“Naw, maybe my sister does, or your brother, but all those older kids kind of look the same.”
“Guess they got to do that somewhere,” Shaun said. “They can’t be doing that all up in their folks’ houses, not after church on a Sunday anyway.”
“I’m thirsty,” I said. “Think we can leave your uncle’s boat tied up here?”
“It’s my boat now,” Shaun reminded me. “Uncle’s dead.”
“Right. Sorry about that. Come on. Cokes are on me.”
We stood and walked out from under the bridge into the ruins of an old riverside hotel. It was probably a grand place before the last fire burned it down sometime before we were born. It was a maze of half-collapsed staircases going down the bluff, held up by kudzu vines and blackberry brambles. You had to watch out for scraps of rusted metal and homeless folks sleeping up in the old hotel kitchen carved back into the river bluff behind curtains of vines. Grown-ups used to tell us stories about kids getting grabbed and pulled behind the vines and murdered, just to scare us from going down there, but nobody we knew ever went missing, so we figured that was all a lie or in the past.
Shaun and I picked our way up a charred staircase until we were at street level. We pushed aside a piece of plywood that was screwed at one corner to block off the entrance to the property, and we were out on the sidewalk, at the intersection of Broad Street and Water Avenue. One block up Broad was the orange and blue neon of the Rexall Drug Store. As we crossed Water Street, a big Buick honked at us. Once we were on the other side, we turned and saw a young couple in the front seat, their hair sweat-matted and mussed. The guy in the driver’s seat pointed at his eyes and then pointed at us, but didn’t say anything.
Shaun and I turned and walked quickly up the sidewalk. “Was that them?” Shaun asked.
“The sexers? I don’t know. Maybe. Could be anybody just trying to mess with us.”
The bell rang above the front door of the Rexall as we walked in. The drug store smelled like my mom’s nail polish remover, and the air conditioner blasted arctic over everything. The man at the register had thinning white hair. He narrowed his eyes, looking at us over the top of a bass fishing magazine as we walked past him and to the back of the store. I dug some quarters out of my pocket and we got two bottles of Coke out of the machine. Glass bottles back then, with a bottle remover mounted to the side of the machine. You had to open a tall, thin door on the front and yank the bottle out of its slot by its neck. Rexall probably had the same machine for decades. We pried the tops off and stood there in the cool aisles of the store, drinking the cola as fast as we could. When we were done, we thunked the bottles down on the counter by the register. The man opened the register and fished out two nickels and slid them across to me, then took the bottles and put them in a wood crate on the floor behind the counter.
We walked back down the block and crossed the street and sat on a bench outside the barricaded entrance to the old hotel. Shaun pointed to a sign hanging by the intersection where Broad crossed Water and started to ascend the bridge. “Y’all going to that?”
Bloody Sunday Anniversary March, the sign read. A reenactment of a voting rights march from the 60s, though without the mounted sheriff’s posse and the tear gas and the state troopers and the dogs.
“Probably not my folks. They never do anything. And you know Ruth’ll probably be grounded. I might ride my bike down and check it out.”
“You ought to come to Brown Chapel with me and my folks before, and do the march with us.”
“You think I could?” I asked. I looked at Shaun sideways.
“Yeah. Shit, why not. My mom thinks you’re a damned saint or something.” The traffic downtown was sparse, halfway through a Sunday afternoon. All the Methodists and Baptists and Episcopalians at the big white-folk churches up the street had all long gone home to their neat houses on the west side of town for Sunday dinner. Most of the stores were closed up. Even the Rexall would close around three.
“Did you hear about that guy who jumped from the bridge last week?” I asked Shaun. The week before, there’d been a picture on the front of the Times-Journal of a skinny man in a tank top and sweatpants, the cuffs of the pants bulging around his ankles, hanging from the bridge deck by his fingertips. The story said that the man let go just moments after the picture was taken and plunged into the river, that the cops figured he had rocks or bricks tied up in his pants around his ankles to keep him under when he fell.
“Yeah,” Shaun said. “Don’t know why somebody’d go off and do something like that. Ain’t like you can’t just leave this place if you don’t like it.”
I thought about that for a moment. Even then I knew I’d leave that town when I graduated from high school and that I’d never go back, not if I could help it.
“You know,” I said, “Bill says his cousin got a diving rig one time and went down to the bottom, by the bridge pilings. Said it was seventy, a hundred feet down, and that there were ten-foot albino catfish swimming around, blind in all that mud.”
“That sounds about right,” Shaun said. He stood and went to squeeze back through the opening behind the plywood. “You coming?” I got up and followed him.
We picked our way over to the top of the old staircase. As we stepped down onto the first step, I was hit by a wave of nausea. It grew as we went down the steps and reached the bottom.
“I think I might throw up,” I told Shaun.
“Well don’t do it on me. I ain’t going back in my house smelling like that. Mom would have my hide, and yours, too.”
“I’m serious, Shaun.”
“Go up in those vines, then.”
I didn’t want to get Shaun in trouble and I didn’t want to be embarrassed by throwing up in front of him, so I ducked behind the vines into the old hotel kitchen area, all the old stories be damned. I immediately bent over and let out the coke and the granola bar, and probably the rum and snacks from the night before, too. When I caught my breath, I felt my head clear.
It was cool back in there. While at first it was pitch dark as night, my eyes adjusted and I saw little strips of afternoon sun weaving in through the vines. If anyone lived behind here once, they were long gone. It was dank and musty, but there was no sign of recent life. No homeless murderers. No bundle of bedding. No fire ring. No child’s bones.
“You all right?” Shaun asked. I peered out from the vines. Shaun was standing close, like he wanted to come in and check on me but was unsure what he would find there.
“Yes,” I said. “Better. Much better.” I pushed aside some of the hanging vines and stepped into the light. We walked back over to the revetment under the bridge. Shaun’s canoe was still there. This time I got into the canoe first while Shaun held it steady. I held my paddle against the concrete to keep us from tipping while Shaun got in.
We pushed off from the concrete with our paddles, then I dug hard on our left side, paddling backwards while Shaun paddled hard forwards on our right and we swung around. Before the current had a chance to push us out from under the bridge, we were turned around and pulling hard to head back upstream.
It was harder going than the ride downstream had been. Maybe there had been too much happening on the ride down the river to notice how easy we’d had it. Ahead of us somewhere was that alligator, maybe those kids in the motor boat. We stayed quiet, concentrating against the afternoon strain. We pulled for what felt like an hour until we finally got back around the bend, and only then did we turn around and look back. By then, there was nothing to see but muddy, swirling water.