On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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In July my wife, Sarah, started working at the hospital where her mother had recently died. It was the last place she wanted to be, and we had enough in savings that she didn’t have to work, but after wandering around the house for a few weeks, she’d decided it was better than the alternative. She worked nights in Labor and Delivery, seven to seven, and slept during the day, waking in the afternoons dehydrated and feeling like she hadn’t slept at all.
I spent the days with my father. First I’d pick Sarah up from the hospital and take her home to sleep. Then I’d meet my father at Hardee’s to drink coffee, eat sausage biscuits, and plan the day. When he wasn’t scheduled for chemo, we would work in his garden or go to his church, where he had a part-time job as custodian, and I’d help him vacuum and scrub toilets. On Wednesdays, when he had a treatment, we skipped Hardee’s and went straight to the hospital. I read magazines and watched The Today Show in the lobby while the IV dripped into his veins. He refused to let me go in to support him, refused to act like a sick man or be treated like one. From there we went back to his house and played dominoes and watched the Turner Classic Movies channel until late afternoon. Thursdays we’d lie low as well, but he usually felt like himself again by Friday. On any given day I saw way too much of the hospital.
Sarah and I had grown up here in De Soto, Mississippi. We’d even gone to the same church, where everybody was convinced they were the only ones going to heaven and they all knew each other’s business, which means our parents knew our business. In De Soto success meant getting a good job at the paper mill or marrying a man with a good job at the paper mill. Except for the Hardee’s, the town shut down every night at seven and all day Sunday. I was four years older than Sarah, so we weren’t in high school together, but we both ended up living in Georgia in our twenties and reconnected at a meeting of the Atlanta Whitewater Club. Later we bonded over beers in a national-forest campground near the Ocoee River, where we stayed up all night feeding the fire and talking about the psychic damage caused by our Mississippi youth. After that weekend on the Ocoee we were together all the time, either kayaking or hiking in northern Georgia or sitting at coffee shops until late in the evening. After a couple of years we got married. I worked as a chemist for a pharmaceutical company, so we did all right in Georgia.
When Sarah’s mother, Penny, got sick four years into our marriage, we decided to move back to Mississippi, considering it penance for the sins of our youth. We signed a lease on a house, a white one-story on the historical register with a wraparound porch and angels, stars, and the moon painted on the transom above the front door. We’d both fallen in love with the place. It was the sort of house a young couple like us would transform into something special on an episode of Fixer Upper. We didn’t mind the sagging foundation. Sarah would take care of her mother, and I would repair some burnt bridges with my father. I’d arranged to teach a few chemistry classes at the community college in the fall, and for the summer I got a job at Lowe’s. We would get by.
Penny’s condition deteriorated rapidly, and she died soon after we’d settled in. Her death hit Sarah hard. She beat herself up for not coming sooner, for allowing her mother to guilt-trip her over living her own life, for never standing up to her. During Penny’s final days my father had been diagnosed with stage-IV lung cancer. The irony was too great to talk about, so Sarah and I didn’t. We didn’t talk much at all. After the funeral I turned in my apron at Lowe’s, and Sarah shuffled through her grief at the hospital. Most days we saw each other only in the early mornings and late afternoons. Even the house became a source of trouble. The air-conditioning stopped working, and a new generation of cockroaches hatched. Our landlord made promises but never returned our calls, and neither of us had the energy to fight over it.
Wednesday morning broke hot and clear, and the sun was up before I rolled out of the damp sheets at six. I’d been dreaming all night about being back in my bedroom at my father’s house. When I was growing up, my father would wake me every morning. My door opened with a noisy ring, and by the time he could say, “Get up,” my feet were on the floor and I was heading for the bathroom. In my dream the door kept opening, and I kept waking and standing, but my father was never there.
I pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, then went to the kitchen, made coffee, and looked out the window. The thermometer mounted to the outside sill already read eighty degrees. Garbage littered the sidewalks: someone had come through the neighborhood the night before — kids or dogs or maybe raccoons — and tipped over the cans. My father was in the front yard stuffing trash back into my can. He couldn’t just drive by without stopping to clean it up. My father still had that ability to make me feel like a kid, like I didn’t know how to pick up the garbage in my own yard. His lips moved, and I imagined him muttering about how the world was going to hell. He was always full of energy in the mornings, ready to set the world back on its foundation. Later in the day his aches and pains and the side effects of his medications caught up to him, and he would become slow and irritable. But in the mornings, especially before a treatment, he was the least-sick man in the world.
I knocked on the window and showed him a coffee cup, but he shook his head. I remembered: he couldn’t have any caffeine before a treatment. I went to help him pick up, but he had pretty much finished the job.
“Sorry little peckerheads,” he said.
“Why don’t you come in and sit down for a while? You’ve got a long day ahead of you.”
Even after six weeks of chemo he still hadn’t lost weight, but the skin of his face seemed stretched, yellow.
“No,” he said, “I’m going to run over to the church and make sure the bathrooms are clean. I probably won’t feel much like it afterward.”
“I can clean the toilets for you.”
“Well.” He stared down the street at the strewn garbage. “I might hold you to it in a few weeks, but I’m not that sick yet.” He started toward his pickup, dragging the trash can behind him. “I’m going to empty this into the dumpster behind the church. Keep those kids out of it.”
“It could have been dogs.”
“Kids, dogs — where I’m taking it, they won’t be able to get to it.”
My father left, and I got in my pickup to go get Sarah at the hospital. I parked on the street and watched the night shift trickle out in their green, purple, and pink scrubs, along with a few white coats. Many paused to light cigarettes once they were far enough from the door. Sarah came out with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her face slack. I could tell she’d had a bad night. There’d been more bad nights than good lately. She climbed into the truck and slammed the door.
“How was it?” I asked.
“Brutal.” She leaned against the window and covered her eyes with one hand.
“Do you want breakfast?”
“Just home,” she said.
When I parked in the driveway, Sarah shuffled straight to bed without bothering to remove her clothes. I had an hour before I took my father for his treatment, so I sat on the edge of the bed, unlaced her shoes, and started rubbing her swollen feet. Finger-shaped bruises marked her forearm.
“What happened there?” I asked.
Sarah looked at her arm. “A girl grabbed me every time she had a contraction.”
“Looks like she was strong.”
“She was just a scared kid. I pushed with her from eleven until four. Dr. Puckett wouldn’t give her an epidural because she didn’t have insurance. The whole time we were pushing, she screamed, ‘My cooter! My cooter!’ in my ear.”
“Her cooter? I’ve never heard it called that before.”
“Me either. Anyway, it hurt,” Sarah said. She winced and drew back when I found a tender spot on her foot. I stopped rubbing, but she pushed her foot toward me again. I pressed my thumb into the sole.
“It was OK,” she said. “I didn’t mind her hurting me if it helped her. She didn’t mean to do it.” Her voice grew drowsy. “She had a tiny baby with deep-cream skin and a little mop of hair.”
“She was. What are you guys doing today?”
She turned her face to the pillow, adjusted the sheets. I started working on the other foot, and she seemed to relax. For a moment I thought she’d fallen asleep.
“I might have to go home,” she said sleepily.
“You are home.”
“I mean Atlanta home. I can’t watch him die, too.”
I worked over her toes, cracking the joints.
“If you get a chance today, call Mrs. Baxter about the air conditioner, OK?” Her voice was almost a whisper.
“OK,” I said, and I moved to kiss her, but she was already asleep.
I went to the kitchen for another cup of coffee, then came back and sat beside Sarah and listened to the sound of her breathing. It didn’t seem fair for her to leave me in De Soto alone, but her mother’s death had changed her. I didn’t know what I would do without her. It was like she was caught in a whirlpool rapid and I didn’t have enough rope to pull her in to shore.
Penny had fought to stay alive on the last night of her life. She told us she didn’t want to die in the dark, when the creatures from her hallucinations had free rein. Her pulse jumped, and Sarah explained this meant that her heart muscles weren’t firing properly. The line on the heart monitor formed lazy waves rather than the normal sharp spikes, and I could see her life leaving her. The next morning Penny told us, “I can’t talk, but I can listen to you talk,” and I sat beside them while Sarah remembered Girl Scout canoe trips, her car wreck, and sneaking in late from dates. An hour later Penny slipped into a coma and never woke up.
I took my father for his treatment, and after it was over, a nurse rolled him into the lobby in a wheelchair. His face was pale, and he leaned forward, holding his stomach with both hands.
“Mr. Myers had a rough treatment,” the nurse said. “He ought to rest here a little longer, but he doesn’t want to stay.”
“Take me home,” my dad whispered.
“Maybe that’s not such a good idea,” I said.
“You can do it, or I’ll walk home.”
The nurse shook her head. “When my momma got sick, I told her, ‘I’m the parent, and you’re the kid, now.’ It didn’t do me any good either.”
My father tried to stand up, but he could barely push himself out of the chair. I grabbed his arms and eased him back down.
“I’ll pull the truck around,” I said.
The nurse followed me to the door and stopped me. Her blond hair was piled on top of her head, and her voice was full of genuine concern. “Do you have anyone you can talk to about your father?” she asked.
“My wife is a nurse.”
“I was thinking more like a pastor.”
I thought about Brother Tomlinson, the preacher at my father’s church, and how when I was a boy, he’d always closed a sermon by holding the Bible over his head and leading us through yet another verse of “The Old Rugged Cross.”
“Not really,” I told the nurse.
She smiled. “The hospital has a chaplain if you don’t have a church home. Can I get you his card?”
I said sure, then pulled the truck around. After the nurse helped my father into the front seat, she handed me a business card and said, “Have a blessed day.” I thanked her and drove away.
“Did the doctor say anything new today?” I asked my father. This visit had included a check-in with the oncologist.
“Said I’ve got cancer.”
“A lot of numbers and whatnot. The way he talks, chemo’s not working like it should.”
“He said that?”
“That’s the way I heard it.”
He looked at me like I was eight years old. “What’s that card say?”
I had set it on the seat, not thinking.
“That’s the hospital chaplain.”
He picked up the card, read it, then dropped it on the floorboard. “You want to talk to someone, you go down to the church and talk to Brother Tomlinson.”
At my father’s house I helped him onto the couch and went to the kitchen. When I came back, he was asleep, and I put a blanket over him and left. I’d call him later.
When Sarah got up, I was washing the pickup in the driveway. She couldn’t have slept more than four hours. Her face was puffy, and her hair was damp with sweat. She’d lost her spring tan because she never went out in the sun anymore. She flashed me a look somewhere between frustration and disgust, then pulled her kayak down from its hooks in the garage and set it on the floor.
“I just want to sit in it,” she said, “and think about someplace cool and clean with water that moves over rocks.”
We’d been kayaking only one time since moving back, on a little river called Black Creek. The water was slow, stained dark by tannins, and choked by downed trees. It was pretty, but there was no white water. Since that day our kayaks had hung unused from the garage rafters.
Sarah slid into the cockpit and wiggled her hips until she was comfortable with the thigh pads, then leaned back and stretched her arms over her head.
“Much better,” she said. She rocked the kayak side to side using her hands against the concrete.
I crimped the hose and sprayed a fine mist over her head. “Rapids coming up.”
Sarah laughed and rocked harder. I got on the bow of her boat and bounced it a little. She tried to throw me off.
“Dent my boat, and I’ll dent your head,” she said, but she was laughing, so I sprayed her some more.
“No, really. Stop it.” She gripped the cockpit rim. “Get off my boat.”
I dropped the hose and sat down, straddling the kayak. Drops of water fell on us from the rafters. The garage smelled cool and wet, like after a rainfall.
“I want to run away,” she said, “somewhere deep in a canyon where no one can ever find us. Go down there and never come out.”
“We’ll get back home again soon,” I said. “I don’t think it will be that much longer.”
On Saturday, when I called to ask my father what time he wanted to meet me at Hardee’s, he said, “I think we should see if the fish are biting.” He had bounced back from his recent round of chemo, though the recovery had been slower than usual. On the way to the lake, the rods and reels and tackle boxes rattled against the aluminum hull of the johnboat in the bed of the pickup.
“Look at that,” my father said. He pointed out the passenger window at five coyotes that had broken from the tree line and were loping single file across a pasture.
“You got a lot of coyotes down here now?” I asked.
“Stinking with them.” My father hung his arm out the window and waved dismissively at the animals. “Take it all,” he said. “You can have the whole damn country now that I’m leaving.”
He wore khaki work pants, a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and leather boots. His arms were well tanned by the sun, but his fingers were blunt and swollen from the circulation disease that had put him on disability.
“I can’t do any fancy knot tying,” he said, holding up one hand. “I guess that’s why I quit fishing.”
“I can tie anything that needs to be tied,” I said. “You never got any fishing done when I was little, either. I was always getting my line hung up in a tree or needing bait put on or something.”
“Well, I can still bait my own hook,” he said.
I thumbed the snapshot I kept in my shirt pocket. When we’d found out about his cancer, Sarah had made me go through my picture albums. She’d said, “Find one picture of your father the way you want to remember him, and keep it with you. You’ll need it when the changes start coming.” The picture in my pocket was from a fishing trip on the Tennessee River when I was in college. I’d driven down to meet him at a state park, and we’d camped on a hill overlooking the river. Every morning we would go down to the boat at sunrise. In the photo my father is sitting in the back of the boat, next to the motor, leaning forward with a forearm on each knee, looking impatient to get out on the water. (He’d never smiled for pictures that I could remember.) The water behind him is smooth as glass and tinged red by the rising sun.
“I was watching a program the other night on evolution,” my father said in the truck. “What do you think about all that?”
“You mean do I believe it?”
“Yeah. You take the Bible. It says the world was created in six days. Six days. Spoken into existence. Daylight, dry land, plants, trees, birds, animals. Man and woman. Preacher says the world’s only about ten thousand years old, but you got these scientists saying this here is sixty million years old, that there is eighty million years old or a hundred million. I wonder how they do that. How do you pull a hundred million years out of a hat?”
“They got carbon-dating techniques. Something to do with radiation, geological conditions, erosion, stuff like that.”
“But a hundred million years. Can you even imagine it?”
“It’s beyond me.”
“It’s infinity, is what it is. Brother Tomlinson says that God goes on forever and ever. He’s been around forever, and after we’re all dead and gone, we’ll either end up in heaven singing His praises forever, or we’ll be in torment forever. Either way it’s infinity.”
“You’re not worried about where you’re going to end up, are you?” I asked, laughing.
“Now, you take me,” he went on, ignoring my question. “I’ve been on this earth for sixty-four years. In a lot of ways, that’s a long time. Right now it feels pretty short to me. But to you sixty-four years probably seems like forever.”
“Not really,” I said. “It’s all going by fast.”
“A hundred million years.” He shook his head. “I wish I could still smoke. I didn’t think so much when I smoked. Everything was a lot simpler then. I framed out a three-bedroom house in two days once — me and a helper. Daylight to dark, a can of potted meat and crackers and a smoke for lunch, then back at it. Everything fell right into place. That was the best I could do. But you take God speaking the world into existence in six days. I don’t care if He did have the Son and the Holy Ghost helping Him. I have almost as much trouble imagining the world created in six days as I do a hundred million years. I can’t get a handle on either one.”
“I’ve heard some people say that the six days in Genesis could have been more figurative,” I said. “Sort of like it was six geological periods.”
My father shook his head. “I don’t know about that. The more I’ve been thinking about it, I’d just as soon believe He did it in six days. It’s all faith anyway. At least with six days you’ve got something solid in God. Something worth believing in, you know?”
He looked at me a long time. “You don’t know what you believe anymore, do you?”
I shook my head.
“I know you don’t believe in what the church has taught you all these years,” he said. “Is that why you won’t come with me on Sundays anymore?”
“Part of it, I guess.”
“Sarah’s pretty mad at God right now.”
“You think that bothers Him?”
“You mad at God?”
“What about? Your mother? Me?”
I flipped on the blinker and slowed to turn off the highway.
“Your mother died a long time ago. You ought to be over that by now. That’s what people do: die. You’re old enough to have figured that out.”
“I am mad,” I said. “It’s just, you were both pretty good people. You are a good person, serving God the best way you . . . I don’t know.”
My father laughed a little.
I turned onto a gravel road that led down to the boat landing. The odor of green water and decay grew stronger.
“Let me ask you,” my father said: “Does God need us, or do we need God?”
I knew the answer he expected, but I kept quiet. The world was chaotic and sad, just like Brother Tomlinson had always warned us all those Sundays when I’d sat and squirmed in the pew, forced to imagine hellfire when I would rather have been playing. The heaven he described didn’t sound much better than church — just more singing and praying, not much time to call my own. I didn’t know what to believe about the afterlife anymore, and I didn’t much care. That would take care of itself.
My father stretched and let out a little groan. “I don’t reckon God owes me any apologies,” he said.
A thunderstorm blew in Saturday afternoon. I stood on the porch and watched the clouds gather and darken until they covered the sky and looked low enough to touch. I thought of the Appalachians in Georgia, the winding roads leading to someplace cool and green. Sarah and I had discovered a dozen or more overgrown forest-service roads and little-used trails that we considered our private domain, hiking deep into the woods and finding creeks and waterfalls that plunged into grottoes with boulders overgrown with moss.
The wind rose, bringing the smell of rain, sweet and thick as river water. The temperature dropped. Lightning cracked and thunder rolled and streetlamps buzzed on early, fooled by the dark sky. The first drops of rain sounded like marbles, one or two, then a few more, and finally a machine gun ripping away. The rain blew down in sheets that folded around the porch roof. The traffic signal at the end of the street swung wildly. A car pulled up in the neighbor’s driveway, and a woman dashed to the shelter of her porch. A bunch of kids rode bicycles down the street, splashing through the overflow from the gutters. When I went back into the house, the power was out. Sarah slept fitfully.
We hardly spoke that evening as I drove her to the hospital for her shift. She groaned when she climbed out of the truck.
“I wish I could help you,” I said.
She gave me a hopeless look through the open window: “You can’t.”
Hospital staff walked past, coming and going. I put the truck in park and tried to think of something to say in response to her pain. She had a habit of retreating into herself, and I never knew how far to follow.
“I’m going in now.” She turned and disappeared inside the hospital. A car pulled up behind me and honked.
My father was expecting me for supper — catfish. He’d already pulled the propane burner and the black iron kettle out of the garage. Before we’d left for the hospital, he’d called to ask Sarah if he could bring her a plate for supper. She’d said no.
I wasn’t quite ready for my father yet. I didn’t want to talk about God or be reminded of his illness. Instead I drove into the country, following the route that Sarah and I sometimes took when she couldn’t sleep in the afternoons. The scenery changed quickly as the road wound past woods, clear-cuts, old aluminum trailers, and fields of soybeans and corn. On those drives Sarah would bask in the air-conditioning and drop off like a baby, but now the road just made me more anxious. I had that stuck-in-the-middle feeling where nothing I did could make anyone happy, least of all myself.
When I got back into town, I still wasn’t ready for my father, so I pulled into a convenience store, bought a six-pack, and took a road I hadn’t driven in a long time. Though I knew better, I opened a beer and sipped it while I drove.
The streets were still wet from the thunderstorm, but the temperature had edged back close to ninety. The air smelled like rotting leaves and damp earth. I turned into an old neighborhood where the houses were run-down and weeds grew around cars parked in the yards. The streets made odd turns to avoid a large creek. I parked in front of a vacant lot littered with trash and got out to look at the water.
The channel was thirty feet wide and ten feet deep, and it looked like people had been dumping garbage there for years. There were bottles, grocery bags, chunks of concrete and pavement, rebar, shingles, rusted steel drums, tires, scraps of lumber and plywood, and an old street sign wedged into the debris. The water was high from the thunderstorm, and the rusty-brown current flowed around the junk, creating a rapid with small waterfalls and smelling of mud and algae and a hint of sewage. I sat on the bank and watched some boys float soda cans in the shallows, the cans bobbing like tiny kayaks. The sun fell behind a house, and the light grew clear. I was late for dinner with my father, but I lingered a moment longer. Everything stood out in sharp detail. Mothers called the kids home for supper, and I was left with the sound of water falling.
When I pulled up to the employee entrance at the hospital the next morning, Sarah was sitting on the curb smoking a cigarette, a sure sign of a bad night. She flicked it away and climbed into the cab. Her eyes were red, and tears stained her cheek.
“Do we have anything to drink at the house?” she asked.
“There’s some beer.”
“It’s probably Budweiser, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” I started home. It was warm out already, and I turned on the air conditioner. Sarah started crying again. “Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.
She blew her nose into a takeout napkin from the glove compartment and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “You came back here in good faith. You didn’t want to come back, but you came back for my mother. You can’t know what that means to me.”
I waited to see where this was going, so I’d know how to respond.
“I saw that girl again,” she said. “I’ve seen her a couple of times on my way to the cafeteria, but she was working my unit last night. She drew blood on two of my patients.”
I knew who she meant: The night before she died, Penny was in and out of consciousness, burning up, and working hard to breathe. Around 2 AM she took off her oxygen mask and told Sarah, “I’ve got to make it to morning.” She was scheduled to have a shunt put in, because the veins in her arm had collapsed. They hadn’t been able to get an IV in her that night — no fluids, no pain medicine, nothing. Sarah and I huddled on the cot beside her bed with a thin hospital blanket draped over our shoulders because the room was freezing. The lights were off, but we could see by the glow of the monitors and the nurses’ station. Penny finally dropped off to sleep around four. Ten minutes later a young nurse came in and woke her to draw blood. She worked both of Penny’s hands and arms, tapping for a vein, poking her over and over with needles but getting nothing out. I wondered why she wasn’t trying another IV. What was the point of doing blood work when Penny was obviously dying? Sarah was coiled like a spring. Penny stared at the nurse over her oxygen mask, eyes pleading, until finally the nurse gave up. “Sorry, hon,” she said. “You try to get some sleep, OK?” She scooted out.
“Did she remember you?” I asked now in the truck.
“I doubt it.”
“Did you say anything to her?”
“No. I thought of a million things I wanted to say, but I didn’t. Then my patient started to deliver, and she called me every dirty word I’d ever heard and some I hadn’t. She was cussing so bad she spit on me.”
“That’s messed up,” I said.
“It doesn’t happen that often.”
When I pulled into the driveway, Sarah said, “I’m sick. Poor in spirit, just like Jesus said.”
“Go back to Atlanta if that’s what you need to do,” I told her. “Anything’s better than watching you drag in and out of that place feeling sorry for yourself.”
I knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as I said it.
“Fuck you,” she said. “You don’t know what I’m feeling.”
“Well, tell me then. I honestly don’t know what to do.”
“You can’t do anything. I can’t do anything. I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking. I can’t breathe. I can’t leave you because you came back here for me. I can’t go in there without thinking about every shitty thing my mother and I ever said to each other. I don’t know why we couldn’t sit in the same house and be happy. I don’t know why family has to be so hard.”
“I don’t know either,” I said. “I just know it is.”
She got out and went into the house. I sat in the driveway, listening to the engine ticking as it cooled. A dove called over the noise of the cicadas.
When I finally went inside, Sarah was sitting on the couch, sipping a Budweiser and watching one of those preaching programs sponsored by a local church. A familiar gray-haired preacher held his Bible up as he delivered his sermon. Sarah pulled a can out of the six-pack ring and handed it to me as I sat down beside her.
“That guy has not aged one minute since I was a kid,” she said, smiling.
The preacher on TV was the same preacher Sarah and I had grown up listening to every Sunday morning and Sunday night in church: Brother Tomlinson.
“He’s still got the spirit,” I said.
Tomlinson finished his sermon and invited the viewers to weekend services and midweek Bible study. Then the scene cut away to an old Sunday worship service while the credits began to roll. The camera panned across the audience, and there was Sarah’s mother sitting a few rows back, framed by a pair of stained-glass windows glowing bright with sunlight. Penny held her songbook in front of her as far out as her arm would stretch; I used to tease her about refusing to wear reading glasses. She looked pretty, and I thought that was how Sarah would look one day, years from now. Sarah was crying — smiling and crying.
After the show Sarah said, “My mother always got out the camcorder whenever my brother brought his kids over. She must have taped hundreds of hours of those kids at birthday parties, playing in wading pools, opening Christmas presents. No one ever thought to point the camera at her. They’re all grown now, and they’re never going to have any way of remembering how she moved. She was the one we should have been videotaping.”
I pulled Sarah’s head into my lap, brushed the hair out of her face, and rubbed her back. She cried a little, then wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“I’m sorry about what I said earlier,” she said.
“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to,” I said.
“No, I want to stay. I feel better about it now. You’ve got a chance to straighten things out with your father. I should have come back sooner so I could do that with Mom.”
We sat there for a long time, me brushing her hair with my fingers. Then she headed off to bed.
I went out on the front porch. The streets were still except for church traffic. My dad would be heading to church now. Brother Tomlinson. Air-conditioning units hummed behind houses. A couple of lawn mowers were running. A big dog trotted down the street, sniffing garbage cans and curbs. It looked at me, then skittered away as if I’d shooed it, which made me feel lonely. I thought about my father sitting in his pew at church. I couldn’t imagine a world without him any more than he could imagine a world without God.
The storm came in the late afternoon, and I loaded the kayaks into the truck in the rain. When Sarah woke, I told her I had a surprise.
I brought her to that creek where people had been dumping their trash. It was even more swollen now, and the rapid was fifty yards long and full of swirling holes. Brown foam filled the eddies and clung to the debris. The rain slowed to a drizzle. Sarah sniffed the air.
“What’s that smell?”
“Cows, I think.” I pointed upstream. “Just keep your mouth closed once we get in the water.”
We unloaded the kayaks and pulled our spray skirts on over our shorts. I slipped into my boat, adjusted my life jacket and helmet, and pushed away from the steep bank with my hands. The current immediately flipped me upside down. My helmet scraped against something, and my life preserver snagged, then came free. I Eskimo-rolled and paddled into a calm eddy behind a pile of cement blocks to wait for Sarah.
She stood on the bank, holding her helmet and paddle. “What are you going to name this?” she yelled. “Shit Creek?”
She scouted the rapid for a few minutes, then got in her boat and pushed off into the water. We ferried across the current and caught eddies to rest. We practiced enders inside a huge tractor tire set on end: the strong current shot Sarah’s kayak from the center of the ring, the stern of the boat going near vertical in the air. She smiled more than she had all summer.
As the light faded, we floated down to a gravel beach overhung with cypress and willow trees. I paddled to shore while Sarah paddled in the current. A handful of kids had gathered there to wade and watch us.
“Do any of you guys live here?” I asked, pointing to a little green house perched on the creek bank.
“I do,” a boy said. He was about ten, with zigzag lines razored into his hair and a pair of high-tops strung around his neck by the laces.
“Is it OK if we carry our boats through your yard?”
“Drive your truck through it. I don’t care,” he said. He stirred the water with a stick, then gave me a sideways look. “Do one of them upside-down things you do.”
“We only do that for beer.” It was the oldest joke on the river.
“Wait a minute.” The kid ran up to the house and came back with a can of Milwaukee’s Best.
“Whose is that?” I asked.
“Put it back. I don’t want you getting in trouble.”
I pushed my kayak into the current, but the boy called out for me to wait.
“We want the lady to do it,” he said.
I looked at Sarah.
“What’s your name?” she asked the boy.
“Why me, Antonio?”
He shrugged and held out the can of beer for Sarah.
“Keep it,” she said. She took a breath and turned her kayak over, then came up a second later with a sweep of her paddle. Water poured out of her helmet. She unbuckled it and shook out her hair.
“How was that?” she asked.
“Real good,” Antonio said. He pulled the tab on the beer and took a short sip, then licked his lips and took a longer one. He passed the can to another kid.
The boys helped carry our boats back to the truck. After we were loaded up, Sarah and I sat on the hood and watched the last of the sun spackle the clouds orange and purple. Antonio brought Sarah another can of beer.
“I keep my word, Boat Lady,” he said, then ran off into the growing dark.
Sarah looked at me and smiled. My God, she was beautiful. I hadn’t realized how far we had drifted apart, and I wondered if coming back to Mississippi, weathering all of this, might actually make us stronger. I hoped so. “A rapid in Mississippi,” she said, and she took a sip, then passed the can to me. “My whole life I’ve been looking for something beautiful here. I never thought I would find it in a shit-stinking creek filled with garbage.”