It was late in the day and late in the summer of my youth. The sun was all but spent with just the ‘golden cusp of Christ’s cup on the horizon’—as the old salts were wont to say—and there we were, Michael, Davey and me, far, far out on the low tide flats of the Gulf, a lanky trio casting long, thin silhouettes behind us with our figment spirits, our guides pointing the way back towards the shore, our shadows showing us the path to the places we each called home.
The day and sea conquered, we strode loud and brash across what had once been the ocean’s dominion. Puffed up proud for having finally gone out so far, and certain that intrepid deeds were always rewarded, we ignored the setting sun and shadows gathering as well as everything else left in our wake. We pressed on. We were no longer boys. We were gods.
As the gunmetal waters once retreated were now returning, there was little doubt left in my mind, and I’m pretty sure Michael and Davey would’ve agreed, that the sea, she’d fled in fear, defeated by our cocksure advance. The Gulf’s water, in reality—as was true with so many things in my youth—it was coerced by forces well beyond my ken. Still, on that day, and more so than any other before or to follow, I was certain I understood all. I was sure that I was in command. Why, if I’d only wanted. my shout long and loud could break the sky like an eggshell and summon the sea’s return. That, or maybe storms I might’ve gathered, what with the heavens churning like balls of great black and gray fistfuls of yarn, turning and knotting and unravelling over and over and knitted by lightning. I could have, I’m pretty sure…if only I’d wished it. Or so things seemed on that fine day—long ago—back then.
We paused at last, far out on the muddy plain. We were some good half mile or perhaps more from the mainland. Looking back both then and today, it proved to be an eternity of space. And there we remained, maybe a full minute uncommonly quiet, surveying the sum of creation. All of it ours.
A regal bird, a heron, white as bleached bones, posed stock still suggesting she might be just that—some bone and feather totem erected by wise men to ward off fools—she stood sentry at the edge of the lonely emerald mound that rose like a sunken earthen demi-god’s knuckle. It was the last remnant of land—or the first, I guess, all things dependent upon a body’s place and perspective. For months on end in the days leading up to this, we’d referred to it as ‘the spot.’ It was a distant mark on the horizon that the three of us had considered from afar that summer and often conspired to someday set foot upon, “Come hell or high water.”
Davey and Michael were close but still well behind me, between me and the mainland; the real world. I felt in that moment—and I recall this distinctly, even all these many years later—I felt as though I was there alone, pressing on, determined to be the first among our company to stand atop that little crop we’d sworn together to conquer.
I paused and minnows darted in the shallow tidal pools racing in mad circles about the pale glow of my bare feet. Having no better place to hide, they settled at last, taking refuge in what had first given them fright, tucking in and tickling about my soles and toes.
Ahead, along the shimmering mud flats that spread out between me and the edge of the grassy isle, a skirmish of fiddler crabs moved as one. Not quite an army, but some lost battalion, perhaps, posted here at world’s end. I remained paused, impressed by their nimble forays—first to the left and then to the right, and back again—movement akin to flocking birds shifting in concert against the plate of sky.
Their lot fell back as I pressed on and drew closer, maneuvering with the noise of jostling dry leaves as they retook the high ground, their fortress upon the little grassy isle.
The great bird broke her pose as well then, and head cocking to offer me one last stern glance, she unfurled her wings out full. In three broad sweeps she was off, gliding effortlessly to places we could spy but never reach.
“Cool,” Davey whispered in awe from someplace behind.
I watched the heron go and was ready to move on myself, but I was stopped again.
One lone fiddler crab held its ground. Defiant, a warrior, opening and closing its massive pincher on high. To its rear, its comrades fled, falling back to the safe concealment of the tall grass. As they scurried and scrambled, still that most noble soldier held steadfast against the behemoths’ advance.
The creature’s bold stance was brief.
A rock hurled down from the heavens smote him. In a resounding smack of obliteration, the warrior was no more. Michael, God of destruction, had struck.
“Hey, you fuck!” I railed in protest.
Michael thought it was just the splatter of mud that had riled me.
He scoffed. “Lighten up, Johnny-boy,” he said, stepping past, ignoring my ineffectual snarl.
Davey, with a ‘whatcha gonna do?’ shrug, followed.
He was right. What was I going to do? I did nothing. Never did. Not one thing.
As Michael and Davey took that high ground and kicked about like mad and kept up hollering and hollering in search of some magical echo that might peal back from the distant mainland—and, as they poked and prodded among the tall grass that we’d always been sure must conceal the absolute best arrowheads—during all that, I kept my place out on the mud. As stoic solid as the crane, I considered the rock Michael had delivered. How could such a large rock be found so far from land? Lost within such a mystery, I became of a mind certain of a cruel universe, of powers and things I couldn’t fathom, of stones from heaven and waters gathering and rising, of a multitude of ancient machines and mechanisms conspiring to bring terrible and wonderful designs together in some collage of madness. Like looking into a clock, I was aware at last of mechanisms great and small, each and every one moving of their own purpose to drive the design, while their Maker, the Master of all things, was otherwise preoccupied with the greater grand scheme.
And then that reverie was broken.
“Hey, Davey. My Ma, she said your dad, he’s a drunk.”
Davey, small though he was, swelled and stepped to Michael. “Really? Your mother? Vera? She said that? Said my dad’s a drunk?”
“Yeah, she said it. Johnny was there,” Michael said, looking to me for confirmation.
I could only grimace and pretend stupid.
“Okay…okay. Do tell,” Davey countered, forefinger tapping his upper lip as he made a game of his thought. “And this gross character assassination of my father, would that have been made before or after Vera sashayed around the Piggly Wiggly in search of wieners?”
Michael stepped in closer, all but butting his chest on Davey’s nose. “Do what, runt?”
Davey fell back and pouted his lips. He cupped his hands to his chest to mime ample breasts. “Excuse me, mister stock boy,” he said in a falsetto. “Can you direct me as to what aisle them there hot dogs be on? You know, the wieners that plump when you cook ‘em? Oh, how I just adore plump…cute…wieners.”
In rural Prescott County, land of logging trucks and hard times, this was just the level of insult that all too often culminated in blows and blood. Michael clenched and swelled. With raised fists, he all but enveloped Davey as the smaller boy cowered. The world went still.
Thankfully, however, we had yet to become our fathers, those beat-down, world-weary men. We were still young. The violence was play, and so with a quickness we were bent over and crying with laughter.
“Good one, Davey,” Michael said at last, gasping and wiping his eyes.
“Yeah, that was stone cold righteous,” I agreed. “Wieners….”
Michael scooped up some muck and made a half-hearted pitch at Davey and the latter gave a good show of falling back as though under a barrage of hellfire.
We all laughed some more and were content to be stupid.
“Feels a little like being Zeus to be out this far,” Davey said there at the last. He’d made the high spot of the grassy knoll once more and was making binoculars of his hands as he surveyed the mainland so far off.
“Zeus? How’s that figure?” I scoffed, not following from my place beneath him, still standing in the mud.
Michael was lost, off in his own world, ignoring us and trampling down a place in the tall grass like a cat kneading a spot for his bed-to-be.
“Well,” Davey explained, not put off by my indignant tone, “for starters, I can see it all. Everything. There’s Dunkel’s,” he noted, breaking his make-believe binoculars to point back to the mainland. “And there,” he added, shifting his pointer just a bit, “there’s Land’s End, the marina.”
He was right. They were two places we knew all too well, now reduced to inches apart upon the horizon, proof that the sum of our world wasn’t much at all even in the paltriest scheme of things. At my pinky was Dunkel’s poolhall and inches away at my thumb tip was Land’s End, the inlet marina. All of it easily captured in the span of my outstretched hand.
Dunkel’s was one of two recreation halls in the community. Old cracker-style and massive, it sat far out over the water like a tortoise shell perched atop a mess of toothpicks. I’d heard it said more than a few times that Dunkel’s pylons were meant to be telephone poles that’d been stolen from a WPA tractor trailer hijacked by a ‘robber hood’ back during the Depression. As the story went, a man—some would say a local legend—Harland Jeffries Creel, he had orchestrated the heist. Perhaps. All too likely, I guess. Who could say? Dwarfing the surrounding small contingent of houses—those wading tin roof clapboards that made it appear so grand in comparison—the hall stood out and loomed as if pulling the others into its orbit. Even here, far away and in the gathering dusk, I could swear I spied the strands of Christmas lights that latticed its horseshoe porch year-round. And, although the crowd had yet to gather, I knew all too well the ballyhoo of singing and carousing that would echo for miles out over the warm Gulf waters into the wee hours. Even all these years later I can still call it from the depths of memory…. Yeah, for sure, Dunkel’s poolhall could be counted on as the lighthouse that would never be. The bright beacon on an otherwise monotonous horizon.
And then there was Land’s End. The inlet. The reason too many of our sorry lot had come together. It was our foolish parents’ watery gateway to whatever meager reward God in His mercy parceled out. And it was a meager parcel. The sea may well possess a rich bounty, but there can be little doubt that it requires a firm foothold on poverty to be desperate enough to drag its treasures ashore.
“C’mon, ya laggards, quit your dillydallying,” Davey said, forging past me and heading inland. “The tide, she is upon us,” he added. “So, unless you plan on growing gills, you better get a move on, lads.”
We knew he was right. The tide was fat and ripe, swelling as if lapping up the light, which in turn seemed somehow to be gathering and diminishing all at once. And while the majesty of that coupling caught us up, we all three knew that only fools toyed with the gathering of night and water. Young, but not quite fools, we nudged and shoulder-punched one another to better keep good our pace. Despite our redoubled efforts, landfall still somehow remained a race away.
Just the same, we were immortal. Screw the Night. The Great Gulf be damned. We still fucked about, toes poking the mud, keeping to our pauses to not be done with it all, eyes squinting in search of things familiar near and far and more and more looking to Michael to see when and if he’d finally move and set us in that right direction—if, that is, he wasn’t sidetracked as well.
But let me be clear here. Davey wasn’t a follower and Michael most definitely was not our leader. To be honest, good ol’ Mike just wasn’t bright enough. Or brave enough. Or enough of oh so many other things. He was a nice guy, though, sure. And that’s why me and Davey—who, I have to say, was as smart as Michael and myself put together, and little more than half my size and something of a crumpled dwarf compared to Michael—that’s why Davey and me all too often nodded and agreed to follow our large friend’s lead.
“Yeah,” Davey said at last, and as though agreeing with a call Michael had yet to make, “You’re right, Mike…. Yeah, best better be high-tailing it in before we get ourselves knee-deep in tiger sharks and Portuguese man-o-wars.” He paused to survey and then he added, “Dunno, Mike, maybe come back tomorrow. Maybe.”
Michael hadn’t heard Davey. “Guys. Check it out,” he said. “Our footprints…they’re on fire.”
Davey spun about to consider Michael’s wonderment and just as quickly smiled in discovery. He breathed more than spoke. “Magic passage.”
My small friend’s assessment was spot on. The deep divots—the tracks created by our slog across the plain of seabed muck—they each had become a scattering of mirrors leading back into the red horizon. Magical pools. And more so, I should say, because they were a fleeting record of fire quickly quelled, one by one they were being extinguished by the consuming tide.
I could be wrong after all these years—or maybe I just want things to fit together this way in retrospect—but I will swear all the same in the here and now. It was in that moment that I felt for the first time Her force set against me. That thrust that creates us in one moment and then comes to take us in the next. Michael’s cruelly cast stone—his smiting of the fiddlers—it came hurtling back into my mind’s eye. I licked the salt on my lips as I considered the fast-closing sea and wondered if I would see the stone coming when it came for me.
Water that hadn’t been there moments before now lapped at my ankles.
We’re caught between rock and water. Alive one moment, and then…poof.
“Weak gravy.” Michael said, shaking off the moment of wonder he himself had discovered. “Fuck this. I’m going home.” He pushed on, leaving our narrow shoulders shrugging in his wake.
“Yep,” Davey agreed. “Daddy Day, he’s short as a circus midget. And Mother Night, why she’s as long as the hairs on the chin of the bearded lady that ol’ Daddy Day pines for.”
It was just the sort of kooky babble you could count on Davey to say. Stuff that all too often left Michael and me shaking our heads and rolling our eyes. Still, and as kooky as it was, this time I couldn’t help but chuckle. I was at the rear of our trio and so couldn’t see their faces. Just the same I knew Michael scowled and Davey beamed.
I was right. Soon enough there was only the oil creep of night at our heels and it was Davey leading the way once more as the snake of dark swallowed the egg of light. And in that exchange, despite it all, my friend Davey grew larger. Small as he was, the dark could not diminish him. Where my perception failed, he grew and railed on.
“Follow me! C’mon! Watch out!”
But night swallowed all. Davey became more and more wispy each time I looked up to consider him. By the end, my feet lead ballooned with each step, sinking deeper into the drowning trail, I struggled to trace him. I could only plod and not search for that thin frame someplace well ahead, lost and lost, no more than a suggestion of life on the dun horizon. Angry to be the least of the trio, I did my best to stay in the race, to keep up, drawn by Davey’s echoing words—his cajoles and trill warnings.
Follow me! C’mon! Watch out!
I can only suppose that’s why I get on with myself these days as I do. Up here in my head, letting the memories tumble around, hoping they grow smooth like the pebbles on the shore. They don’t. Everything just bangs about. It’s all sharp edges clattering in a drum that can never stop spinning. In my dreams—hell, in my waking hours—it’s all too often that day. Thump and tumble. Davey’s ghost always someplace ahead of me, distant and calling out. We are both far from shore. The water rising. There are no stars. They say you can’t know a smell in your dreams. Colors and sound—even music sometimes—but no smells. That’s a lie. In those dreams it’s always the same. The foulness of a red tide.
As bad as it is, I know one truth. Before I wake or die, wake or dream, my friend Davey will always be first to find the shore. God bless Davey McCuller. God bless him ‘cause for damn sure nobody else did.
Michael hadn’t lied. Davey’s old man was a drunk. And I don’t mean he simply poured himself into a bottle come night after night after a long shift at the pulp mill or a long run out on the water. No one would have thought any worse of him since they were all doing the same for the most part.
No, Davey’s father lived in the drink. Didn’t hold no job, neither. Claimed his back was bad. Said it was ‘shot to hell.’ I’d heard him moan and groan as much once or seven times as he leaned into his pool cue at Dunkel’s. He was a man forever stretched too far, regardless of the endeavor’s small scale. It’s only too bad he found keeping his heart beating and lungs breathing well within his feeble power for as many years as he did.
Why he’d chosen the term shot—when it came to his back being ‘shot to hell’—I must admit made me despise the man, since I knew for a fact that he’d neither worn a uniform nor a badge and the only hunting he did was illegal poaching without a license and often out of season. Still, that was his claim to misery and that’s how he stayed on the dole. Davey’s mom—his stepmom, that is—as I recollect, she worked nights as a nurse’s aide back at one of the old folks’ homes thirty or so miles inland. So, my friend Davey, he and his mom and dad, they made do with that bit of her pay and food stamps. Goes without saying, things were tight in the McCuller household.
All the same, regardless of his spine’s poor condition where and when it came to work, Davey’s father, well he had no difficulty whooping the hell out of both Davey and his skinny stepmother. The shit people put up with. Sometimes I think the world only turns because it’s doing its best to get away from us.
Not that neither Michael nor me had much room to pass too much judgment in that last regard.
Michael’s mom was more than likely the laziest woman I ever have had the trouble to come across. Called herself a homemaker. I say ‘called’ because I would have thought a body would have to have made a substantial effort to keep a home so wretched. I swear, if you’d left the doors and windows open, I’m pretty sure more roaches and silverfish would have crawled out than in.
Her idea of feeding the family was to roast a chicken sometime around ten in the morning and leave it out on the counter all day and through to the next morning when it would get replaced with another. Yeah, that cold bird would sit out all day and night, you know, ‘So any a y’all can pick at it when an’ if the mood strikes.’ I can assure you, that mood never once struck me, given the fact that the roaches were almost always the first to get hunger pangs and kept dibs on the foul thing even throughout the light of day much less night. I swear, there was this one time, Michael and me came in that kitchen one evening from out of his backyard, and when we flipped on the overhead light, so many damned roaches came off that plate—scurrying like gangbusters for cracks and dark corners—that I thought the roast chicken was dissolving right before my eyes.
And then there was my family’s foibles and shortcomings to tell as well. But, perhaps, not just yet.
Back to that day.
We’d planned to camp out that night and the next—it being all but the last weekend of the summer before the hell of middle school commenced anew—and so to that end we all three had collected what provisions we could manage. Between us we’d lifted at least two or three cigarettes each from our parents’ bad habit and Davey had even scored two cans of Pabst’s Blue Ribbon. Something told me that he would pay for such boldness later down the road—and I’m sure he and Michael knew as much as well—but, just the same, we were a clan of three content to live for today and worry over consequences to come tomorrow.
We made it back to the mainland right at nightfall proper and slightly ahead if not with the tide, although, in the case of the latter we were wading knee deep for the final leg. Davey started up, as we drew close to the shore, and kept on about how, “The vast majority of shark attacks take place in shallow waters at dusk. Perfect conditions, just like these.”
His dire observations got him nowhere with Michael and me. But that’s not to say such talk was wasted.
Barefoot and in nothing but our belted shorts, the exchange between Michal and me was wordless and brief. The water only a few feet deep. We dove under and left Davey alone to consider the sharks. I imagine my bubbling laughter was as fit as Michael’s. I know I got to Davey first, grabbed an ankle tight to upend him as we all exploded in a foam of ‘fuck you guys!’ and the laughter ensuing made far off porch lights flicker to life.
It was just that good.
Our bikes were where we’d left them some three hours earlier, and with exhaustion having us in its clutches, we begrudgingly collected our metal stallions opting to push them rather than to ride.
“You guys got me good,” Davey said as we dripped into the night.
The limestone grade we followed was a loop that ran along the peninsula’s edge, a lasso berm of hard stone and yellow earth running about a quarter mile all in all. Further inland it came to meet with a substantial macadam road that I knew oh so well. It was the beginnings of a stretch that was never short of roadkill. Critters small. Sometimes not so much. That fucking road. Strange thing to me was that where it met the main state road—that long tick back to civilization—that’s where it became smooth and proper. It was just for us that our bit was so cruelly marbled. Embedded with sharp-edged stones that played hell on bare feet, our path to beat. ‘Life callouses,’ as my Gramma would’ve dismissed. ‘Blisters and skeeter bites are the Devil’s only kind kisses,’ she’d say and guffaw like no tomorrow. I always asked when she said such things just what she meant by them. Her way of thinking was an almost foreign tongue. And by that, I mean her look on life. She was like no other in our family. If I were in striking range, she’d play-slap and ask me to bring my ‘fool melon a bit closer.’ If I dared do so, which I always did, she’d gently knuckle rap test it with a ‘Nope, not ripe yet.’ She passed away on her birthday. Well, or so I thought for many years but not quite. But she swore she would live to see it and almost made good on her promise. So, a lie was told—a little white—and no one thought much to disagree. Sometimes family does right by its own, I guess.
Another quarter mile inland would find Michael’s fine house and the trailer park where I lived. To tally up the residences of the limestone grade and rocky blacktop of the peninsula, there were perhaps a dozen homes. At least three long abandoned. Husks that now hovered with cock-eyed windows of broken glass and porches sagging over marsh that would have the whole of them soon enough. There were also a few abandoned boats scattered here and there, and even one honest to God shrimp trawler, all forty-five feet of her scuttled way back in the marsh at the cypress edge where she’d been tossed by the sea some six or seven years earlier in what some called ‘The Storm of the Century.’ The old salts scoffed at that, however, they said nothing bested the ‘cane of ‘53. ‘That’s when She wiped the blackboard clean,’ I’d heard old mister Robert John Roberts say one night at the poolhall. He was drunk again. Louder than the jukebox and pinball machine put together. The proprietors, old man and lady Dunkle, as always, they run him off, sent him on his way, pretty polite and all, but just the same he tossed himself on his own keister just trying to stumble-drunk navigate the walkway from the poolhall porch to dry land.
The occupied places were stilt houses rising from mud and reeds that tended to be closer to the limestone road and a hodgepodge of trailers just off the blacktop. Only four were well placed along what could be considered beach. Two were owned by city folk. Second homes, I guess, for some well-to-do types from the capital or elsewheres. Handsome couples who’d appear and stay most of the summer before fading off to their other wonderous lives. And then there was the grandest of those places, Dunkel’s poolhall.
The remaining homes dotting, if not infecting, the peninsula, those were smaller and far and away much sadder affairs. Each was rundown to some degree varying from ‘eh, not so bad’ to ‘that’s entirely poor livin’.’ Some of the state of their depression they shared in common—crooked and sagging docks, rusted and patched tin roofs—while others found more unique way to express their poverty. I recall one shack that kept a junk yard assembled in half-sunk old aluminum boats all about it. The owner had crafted a makeshift television antenna from the bare rim and spokes of a bicycle’s wheels tacked atop a mast of two by fours. Inspired necessity.
So many of those houses had additions—add-ons, do-it-yourselfer stuff—constructed from mostly mismatched materials and scraps and usually looking like some kind of study in experimental geometry. I swear, if there was a building inspector thereabouts, why, he was either blind, easily bribed, or drunk all day. They say Jesus was a carpenter. Probably. Because I know I’d find God right quick if I had to weather a hurricane inside any one of those places, if even for an hour.
And so other than the rattlesnakes, moccasins, pine and oak and cypress, and mosquitos…and the smell of magnolias and brine, that was about it for my little corner of the world. My private road to nowhere. Well, not the sum, I guess, truth be told, but my corner in that time.
Yeah, there was more to it. Off from my little creek-laced and marsh-bound peninsula, off further along the mainland coast, mostly to the south, the property values were a good bit better. There was more beach access. Better access. White sand as opposed to the mud we had. And amenities. The marina and inlet with a fresh fish market. A couple nice restaurants, both on the water. The homes there were all level and square. The angles made sense. Matching, complimentary paint schemes. Yeah…schemes. Most definitely schemes.
“Someday,” Davey had told me once, pointing to just such a fine place as one of those well-trimmed, two storied beach houses standing over sugar sand.
“Yeah, right. Someday.”