From Memphis Afternoons:
Bud drove a pink and white Ford Fairlane convertible with skirts on the fenders for that sleek, impregnable look, and a muffler that blew unlawfully loud exhaust. The rear bumper hovered within inches of the road; dried mud and grass clung to the trailer hitch. Inside, old tarpaulin, decoys, shotgun shells, jumper cables, and hip boots piled on the imitation white leather detracted from the car's suaveness; dust lay thickly on the dash and its four-battery flashlight and bubble compass. Stuffed above the visors were licenses and scribbled, barely literate permissions to tromp on land relatively few people knew existed. The smells of gasoline and the muddy immensity of the Mississippi slipped through the gaps between the windows and the patched cloth top.
The owner of the car was in most ways the antithesis of my father. Bud represented a version of the southern male close to ubiquitous, however, and his world a basic alternative to the mundane and the civilized that Memphis seemed so proud of. His Ford was often parked behind the gas station down the street, next to a little silver Airstream where Bud slept. He was about thirty, a case of arrested development whose father owned the station. Bud helped out when he wasn't earning good money at the Fruehauf plant, or off in the country. Rawboned, with close-cropped black hair plastered to his head by sweatbands and thin lips that pinched the ever-present Camel, Bud treated my mother politely when servicing our green Hudson; he gave us a duck on occasion, or a catfish, totems from that other world. My father liked Bud but pointed out that he wasn't "going anywhere," that hunting and fishing four and five days a week was excessive even by southern standards.
Bud treated the kids who hung around his father's station like equals, which in many ways we were. Periodically he took them hunting. I badly wanted to go, and my father's counterarguments — that twelve-year-olds were too young, that we owned no hunting gear — were no match for my ardor. I went to bed one night in thin December light and watched the darkness come on, the merciful beginning of something that had to end before something else could get under way.
I was buzzed awake at three A.M. by the alarm clock, and crawled into borrowed clothes. Then I was eating a waffle, an extravagance — in the glare of the Toddle House lights. Bud and I headed for Arkansas in the Fairlane, our destination Coca-Cola's duck-hunting preserve near Stuttgart, a flooded fiefdom surrounded by a moat and patrolled by private guards.
Bud believed in taking what was available, not theft exactly but a sharing in bountiful nature. Property and legality were, to him, matters of individual interpretation. "You've got to get yours," he said, "yours" being whatever you could get away with taking, a piece of the good life that would never be handed to you.
We got ours by first teetering along dead trees that had fallen across Coke's moat, wearing heavy rubber hip boots and carrying shotguns, a crazy exercise. To slip was to drown, or at least catch pneumonia. There was a skin of ice on the water, gray under gray skies. Bud launched his calls into them, chuffing on the wooden tube while we listened to the corporate sports shooting from heated blinds farther in. I was squatting on the upheaved roots of a felled oak, relieving myself, when the first mallards came; I raised the shotgun, pulled the trigger, and almost went over with the force of the kick.
A bead of blood depended at the tip of the drake's beak, as luminous as the green head feathers. I carried the body in my jacket, a warm lump of guilt, a reluctant miracle.
A year later Bud quit his job at Fruehauf and built a plywood shack buoyed by empty oil drums on a lonely stretch of river upstream, tethered in flooded willows at the tip of an island called Brandywine. For ages the Mississippi had formed great loops in the land, confusing state boundaries by breaking through to new channels, leaving dry lagoons and brackish oxbows where mosquitoes bred and armored gars floated on moonlit nights. In isolated woodlots on Brandywine the poison ivy grew fan-like leaves and hummocked roots; big stands of oak, hickory, and walnut remained uncut, the deer, wild turkeys, and razorback hogs unhunted. The interior of the island had harbored a penal colony in the early years of the century but the settlement was long gone, pulled down by creepers and violent rains.
Bud's shack was anchored on the edge of the mile of doghair willow, in what had once been the main channel. No one seemed to know if it was in Arkansas or Tennessee, or to care. He paid no rent and no taxes. Expansion depended solely on the availability of empty oil drums, and Bud became the only man on the lower Mississippi who owned two floating beagle packs. He used one for hunting rabbits, one for deer. Brandywine provided country big enough to swallow you; eventually the river would loom among trees so capacious they shut out the sun, an expanse of water and silt carried down from mysterious headwaters toward Vicksburg and New Orleans, plowed by saurian monsters urging pencil-thin lines of barges toward Cairo and St. Louis.
Brandywine did have an inhabitant, an old half-breed named Monk, with skin like stretched rawhide and a perpetually dripping nose. He lived in a tent with a wood-burning stove and several feists, muscular little dogs that were hell on squirrels I knocked out of the tops of oaks with J. P. Alley's old single-barrel. Monk was paid by a rich man in Memphis, who owned the island, to keep people from hunting there. Bud brought Monk whiskey, canned milk, and other necessities from town, shot craps with him on a greasy blanket spread in front of the tent, along with hands from the tugs who came ashore to carouse, and Bud was awarded the island as his private preserve.
Once Bud put me ashore on the other side of Brandywine and told me to walk to Monk's. "Just head into the sun," he would say, or, "If you hit the willows, turn left. You can't get lost." I imagined annihilation in the dense tangles of creeper and sassafras, under the tusks of wild hogs that left great swaths of moist, uprooted earth. They were too canny to be seen and no real threat, yet stories of boars ripping open the stomachs of pursuing hounds had made a deep impression. I came across deer on their day beds, and in April a spawn of water moccasins emerging from hibernation: thick, black hanks of scales with flat heads and evil eyes, too besotted with sleep to strike. Then the river would appear among the trees with the force of salvation. In Monk's squalid, packed-dirt courtyard, men would be rolling dice on hands and knees, in their fists dollars and the passed-around, sloshing pint.
A speedboat sits at Bud's dock, an old Chris-Craft with the varnish gone, the two hunters behind the cloudy windshield watching our approach. In the evenings passers-by often came to talk and drink coffee made from boiled river water, sitting in dilapidated chairs around Bud's table. The place smelled of the lantern's exhaust and contained, if ducks were stewing, a feral delectation that hung two feet below the ceiling. The sounds of scraping boots, yapping dogs, and the voices of men unmoored from their women filled the place.
This time there is something wrong. I step onto the dock and tie up the skiff, proud of this ability, and Bud asks one of the hunters, "Do any good?"
The man says, "Shot himself."
I see the third one then, sprawled in the stern, a jacket over his head. A hand protrudes, freckled with blood.
"Shoving his gun under the seat, by the barrel."
I am afraid I will topple into the water. Carefully I crouch, my back against the cabin, while the men talk, their pale faces etched into the dun backdrop of willow whips. There is a grainy tangibility about the sky; I do not want to look at the thing in the back of the boat, but I do, struck most by its stillness.
Bud took up commercial fishing. He used hoop nets he wove himself and dropped into the river, tied to anchors; the current held them open and into them swam the most amazing things. As one of several boys who worked for Bud one summer, I raised the nets, collected fish, and helped peddle them to the tugs. We also hawked fish in Orange Mound, one of Memphis's black neighborhoods, where customers pointed out the fish they wanted, and I would haul it out and flop it into the pan on the scale, and Bud would calculate the price. He carried a notebook in the back pocket of his jeans in which he kept track of money owed him by gaunt men in worn wing-tips who laughed and bargained, by big-breasted women and sometimes girls.
Later, he would ask me, "You like that poontang?"
We sold what was left of the haul to a monger in a rubber apron on Summer Avenue, who slithered the fish across his slimy concrete slab while I tried to wash the stench from my hands. No girl of any color would pay attention to an evil-smelling fisherman's apprentice, even one operating out of the trunk of a pink convertible.
The riskiness of the fishing appealed to me. I was a free agent in what struck most people as a remote, even hostile place. Nothing moved on that broad canvas of woods and water I couldn't claim. The muscles in my arms acquired defining ridges; my skin turned nut brown. Several times a day I jumped into, and even drank, water most Memphians were reluctant to touch. The fishermen who appeared on weekends to toss out lines attached to cans — "jugs" — and float amidst their litter, drinking beer and getting sunburned, watched me with what I imagined to be respect. I was the native, knife strapped on, capable of stealing their fish, their coolers, and maybe their daughters.
I memorized the nets' locations, trees on shore my guides. I would swing the grappling hook overhead, heave it into the water, watch the line play out, feel the metal tines catch. I hauled hand over hand, turning the skiff into the current, using the gunwale as a fulcrum. The net rose through opacity. Bud wanted catfish, but I yearned for gars; there were stories of twelve-footers wriggling through the shallows to drag off human babies, and even the small ones ripped holes in the mesh as they escaped. But sometimes the net jammed between their translucent teeth, sharp as needles, drowning them, and these I could examine at leisure, poking at the eyes and tweaking the teeth, before dumping the whole primordial mess back into the river.
Once Dad drove me up to the landing, inside the levee in Arkansas, and we all fished for crappie on a backwater. He enjoyed this, as he did any activity exclusively male, but the scene was too elemental for him. Bud's cabin represented commendable independence but also a rejection of society that included, Dad rightly suspected, some lawlessness. The renegade's was not his version of individualism. On the other hand, I was learning things Dad couldn't teach me, and not pestering him to take me into places where he wasn't entirely capable.
One day when we were alone, Bud said, "That old gal's coming up tomorrow."
His taste in women was similar to his taste in cars: he liked them flashy, used, a bit dangerous. He could be picky. He had dropped a good-looking blond waitress because she allowed food to accumulate in the cracks in her Formica tabletop. This new woman, Karen, was divorced; he had taken her waterskiing in cloacal McKeller Lake, in south Memphis, where she had snuggled up to him in the water, and later they had gotten naked in his Airstream. Bud hinted that Karen might make her ravenous self available to me, too. Extending his woods ethic, he said that using a woman to help a friend get his was just like using your car to smuggle a friend's ducks past the game warden, concealed under hubcaps.
The next day Karen appeared in the bow of Bud's skiff large, pretty, her streaked blond hair tied up in a scarf. Bud said, "Say hello to Karen, Jim.”
There were little gaps between her teeth. The raised heels on her plastic sandals made her step from the boat awkward; the shorts cut into the tops of full, downy thighs. The halter showed cleavage that didn't disappear when she straightened up.
Karen took in the willow thicket, the radiant tin roof under the ferocious sun, and said, "My, my."
I followed her inside, where she glanced at the boots and nets, clothes hanging from nails, the strikingly clutter-free double bed, and added, "This is real cute."
Bud produced the Thermos of ice, gin, and lemonade, and took down two jelly glasses. Karen asked me, "What do you do up here?"
"He runs the nets," said Bud. "Jim could tell you a thing or two about the river. Here, try this on for size."
They drank while I lay on my cot and pretended to read Field and Stream ("Hairy Lures for Monster Bass"). I went swimming and made noise doing it, hoping Karen would join me, but she stayed out of the sun. Only when the angle of the roof had thrown a shadow over the dock did she come outside, and then she wanted to ride in the skiff. She insisted upon sitting in the stern — I could have told her the boat wouldn't plane — and when they came back her arm was around Bud's neck.
"Aren't you gonna run the nets?" she asked me.
The windows were propped open but the heat hung inside. Nothing moved on our glassy backwater. Bud poured me a glass of his concoction and I took it outside and sipped it with exaggerated nonchalance. Karen sat on the edge of the dock, sandals off, her feet in the water, listening to the radio. Mosquitoes courting in the cottonwoods along the bank made more noise than the Grand Ole Opry. Bud sang along with the song, changing the words slightly: "'Jimbo, Jimbo, where you gonna go-ee-o? Jimbo, Jimbo, what'cha gonna do-ee-o?' "
I could see rivulets of sweat running down between Karen's breasts, leaving tiny furrows in the blond hairs. I tried not to let her catch me looking, but the heat and the gin had made me stupid.
"'... does your mommy knoooow, you're going down the road to see a little girl-ee-o?'"
Karen asked, "How old are you?"
"You must get bored without anybody your own age around. I'd flat get bored."
Supper consisted of Dinty Moore beef stew and canned peaches. The two of them kept drinking. Afterward, Karen pulled Bud to his feet and jitterbugged to the music. I was surprised that a big woman could move so well. Her cantilevered breasts swung back and forth; I had never seen anything like them — they had a life of their own, operating on some new principle of levitation. I heard Bud say, "You try, Jim."
Karen caught me by the arm and swung me into her. I had slow danced in the cafeteria at school and was no stranger to the pelvic thrust, but nothing had prepared me for Karen's unabashed proximity. Her left breast padded my collarbone; she slipped her fingers into the hair on the back of my neck and moved me around the floor. I felt the unexpected compactness of her waist above those hips, and below, her soft belly and that tight reality.
Bud said, "Bedtime."
He stripped to his boxer shorts, turned off the Coleman, and stretched out on the double bed. I undressed, listening to the lantern's gasp, my back to Karen. I went outside to brush my teeth — the dutiful hygienist. The sordidness of all this didn't escape me; I was ashamed of it, as I was of killing game out of season and other schemes to get yours, but the prospect of Karen overwhelmed that. On some level I knew my time on the river was over and that this sexual setup would not be repeated.
She lay on her back next to Bud, still in her shorts. In the near-darkness I could see that the halter was gone but not the bra, and exposed female underwear of any sort was unprecedented. Women lived on an astral plane; most of what I knew about them was hearsay. Dad had not explained the facts of life to me; his code left no room for embarrassing specifics. A man, even a young one, gained that kind of knowledge by masculine osmosis. Dad sometimes looked at women on the street in a way that troubled me, preoccupied, but they and their anatomy weren't the subjects of conversation. He didn't tell dirty jokes, the main source of my sex education, augmented by Cavalier and the usual dirty palaver among boys who pursued the real thing in fantasy — at home, on the bus, in the Normal Theater where jackets were spread like inverted trampolines washed in the reflected glow of Esther Williams and Natalie Wood.
I lay down beside her. Almost immediately Bud began to snore, genuine rafter-shakers that made the pretense of sleep impossible. Karen sighed: fatigue, exasperation, or lust. Emboldened by the dancing but extremely tentative, I turned and touched her arm; she didn't move it, and I touched her stomach. This was warm and damp, rising and falling, evidence I assumed of a divorcee's passion. I inched my hand upward until it arrived, daringly, on a compacted mound of breast. The heft amazed me. With what I thought was great discretion I began to search for the peak of that arching mass, expecting Karen to move my hand, or to make a comment, even to help, but she did nothing at all.
I passed over the top of the bra and began to tunnel, tricky because of the angle and the unyielding material. Elbow in the air, I worked deeper, across the soft topography of the ultimate bareness. I imagined a nipple rising, and thought I detected a tremor of encouragement. Then my hand got stuck. It felt like coat-hanger wire; freer access was prevented by the bra clasp, buried beneath all those square inches of a woman who in haled so deeply it hurt. I worked my hand free and went for the shorts instead, trussed in front with strings I had studied in daylight, intimidated by their complexity. When my fingers were deep in that thicket, Karen again sucked air, and the laces went taut.
I didn't know what to do next. It occurred to me that we might discuss this dilemma, but Karen clearly didn't want a conversation with some kid in the middle of nowhere. I had been defeated by her formidable hydraulics.
Bud came awake and reached for her, and Karen whispered, "Not here."
They went outside to argue. I heard the Evinrude start up and went to the door. By then the skiff was an outbound wedge on moonlit water, Karen in the bow, facing away from the coal of Bud's cigarette. They ran over a gar — thwup — and disappeared under the dark lee of Arkansas.
Newly released paperback and e-book available at: http://www.fearlessbooks.com/MemphisAfternoons.htm
Newly released paperback and e-book available at: http://www.fearlessbooks.com/MemphisAfternoons.htm