“Like a Burst of Fire” by Jackson Culpepper

Henry was not on the baseball team and he had only ever been to one game. Really he was not a man for sport at all, but when Fred came by in his new flatbed and blowed the horn, something in Henry jumped up before he even knew what it was.

“What’s all this racket for?” Henry asked Fred.

Fred whispered as though his trip was a conspiracy, “Southeastern division! Delia beat the whole goddamn South. They’re having a victory party at the river. Word is our Reds have that place taken over.” Fred grinned. “Look in the back, Henry.”

Henry lifted a flap of canvas to reveal several cases of beer. He quickly pulled the flap back, hoping the neighbors didn’t see. His was a good Methodist neighborhood.

Ula Mae, Fred’s sister, leaned over from the passenger side and said, “I heard they have champagne and a full band. You will dance, won’t you, Henry?”

“What, in the water?” Fred asked, cocking his hat back on his head. “It’s a pool, not some joint.”

“They’re wild, they might. Remember when they started that big fight in Americus halfway through the eighth inning? The radio said it was utter chaos. You were listening, weren’t you, Henry?” Ula Mae said.

Henry had been listening to the Carter Family on the Opry all evening.

“Come on Henry, let’s go. You don’t get out enough.”

Henry got his clothes. On his way back way out, his mother asked, “Who is making such a racket in the drive?”

“Just an acquaintance. I shall not be long.”

“Do not stay out too late, the bishop will be at service tomorrow.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Fred slapped the steering wheel when Henry squeezed in between him and Ula Mae. Soon the wide streets and well-kept lawns faded to woods and shotgun houses west of town.

“Feel around, under the seat, Henry, see if you find anything,” Fred said.

Henry bent and reached under the seat. There was a half-full half-pint jar. “That’s the good stuff,” Fred said, “some of Pappy Marlowe’s. Go on, try a sip.” Henry flushed. He imagined his Mother’s and the bishop’s scowls, foregrounded against the church’s white doorway.

“Well let me try it, if you won’t,” said Ula Mae, taking the jar. She took a dainty sip and then a longer one. Fred chuckled. “Old Marlowe’s whiskey will come up on you about like he would—sweet and smooth, but before you know it, you’re face to face with an old swamp runner. And he don’t let go easy.”

“Oh Fred, hush,” Ula Mae said, turning to Henry. “He always gets like that, every time I drink any little thing! He starts all this seduction talk.”

“Just trying to protect your innocence, Uly,” Fred said.

Ula Mae took another sip. “I don’t know what innocence you think you have, what with that letter you sent to Gladys and all this whiskey in Daddy’s new truck—which you borrowed without asking—and I don’t even need to mention that woman on Coney road—”

“Woman, be silent!”

They hit a pothole and lurched, coming down in a flurry of elbows, shoulders and half of old Marlowe’s liquor. Fred started to explain, “It was just a sappy old love letter Gladys held on to for no damn reason.”

“She always was sentimental,” Henry said.

“And Pa said I could take it out; I’ll have to haul cotton in it anyway.”

“It does take some practice to learn the gears,” Henry said.

“Oh Henry, don’t take up for him like that,” Ula Mae said.

“Do you want to swim across the river?” Fred asked.

“You wouldn’t kick me out of a borrowed truck.”

Fred and Ula Mae kept going until they came to the landing. Bubba Evans came out of his shack. “One dollar, mister,” he said, and Fred handed him a silver dollar. Bubba dragged the cable to pull them across the river.

Over the slosh of water, Henry heard dance music, shouting. Electric lights reflected in the ripples of the river. The pool was a beacon, bounded by shadowed water. “There is music, I told you there would be!” said Ula Mae.

The ferry slid up the bank and Fred drove off and parked by a bus. “The Reds’ own bus, Henry!” he said, slapping the side of it.

They walked through the gate of the pool into a gold-lit world of noise. The water seethed with hairy-chested men and suited women. Arms lifted brown bottles of beer. A handful of musicians played ragtime—Henry recognized Bissett on trombone and Leon on trumpet. Beyond them, he did not recognize half the people there. For all he knew, and it seemed so, half of Georgia was in that pool.

“Suit up, Henry,” called Fred.

“I could not find mine,” Henry said. In truth, he did not own one.

“Just jump in in your underwear.” Many of the men and even a few of the women had done so. Henry felt out of place in his shirtsleeves and hat. A man in shorts bumped into him. “Have some hooch,” the man said through a red forest of beard. Henry took the pint jar and sipped, thinking liquor might help him loosen up. Finding himself among such a rowdy crowd and already so much sin, he might as well drink. Fire with fire, sin with sin. The liquor burned but he made himself drink two good swigs before he handed it back to the man and thanked him.

Henry stripped to his shorts. He folded his clothes and placed them on a bench in a far corner, his hat set atop them. The pool was packed; man against woman, skin against skin. There was an unopened beer on the bench. Henry took it and slid into the pool.

Pushing through the wet mass of bodies, Henry searched for Fred and Ula Mae, or anybody he might know. Finding no one, he turned to a group of four men, one of them in a Reds baseball cap, and introduced himself. He told them he was from Delia and asked where they were from. They were all quite drunk, but Henry could not leave just after he had made introductions. One man said “From Valdosta, all the way up here to celebrate.”

“That ain’t nothing, I came from Athens.”

“The hell with Athens, I came from Ocala.”

“What the hell you here from Ocala for?”

“To watch baseball, dumbass, why else?”

Henry was not sure if they were joking or about to fight.

Henry grabbed a passing liquor jar and took a deep few swigs. He left the baseball group and looked for women to talk to. Three of them stood sipping beer and he pushed through warm bodies to get to them.

Breaking into their circle, Henry saw that Ula Mae. “Isn’t it wild?” she said.

“Yes, it is,” he said, but he was not sure if she heard him since they were adjacent to the band and Bissett had played a loud gliss. Ula Mae made swift introductions, of which Henry remembered none. Then Ula Mae filled any possible silence with gossip about Fred and Gladys: how she jilted him or he jilted her. Henry was not sure which. He turned to one of the other girls and said, “Did you travel far to be here tonight?”

“What?”

“Where are you from?”

“My girlfriend and I came down from Vienna.”

“I am from—“ Henry began, but a trombone slide stuck into the space between them. The girl’s eyes crossed looking at it, before it disappeared back the way it came.

“I need to find my friend,” the girl said. “She always does something wild at parties like this. I have to keep an eye on her. It was good to meet you.” And she pushed through bodies and was gone. Ula Mae still talked.

Henry tried vaguely to follow the girl. Hands clapped him on the back. He saw things terribly clearly, when he looked directly at them. Everybody was golden in the electric lights. Others laughed and it made Henry laugh. His ideas against drink and debauchery were changing rapidly. Still, he wanted to talk to a woman. Talk, and bring her over and sit by the fire, listening to the Opry. More than anything, he wanted some girl to call on, to take out. Henry had the handicap of shyness and the constraint of a zealous mother, not that those things should really be stopping him. Then and there, he vowed to relax his strenuous life and live like he imagined one of these revelers lived. At least in part. He took another drink.

By now he was used to the noise, sweat, men yelling and girls giggling, and him pushing his way among them, looking for that first girl he had talked to, or another one whom he could talk to. He heard a laugh like back-porch chimes, and turned. There was a woman laughing, her hair curled and untouched by the water, her skin the color of honey in the lights. Her eyes were dark, were as comfortable in this place, probably in any place, as Henry was apprehensive. She was happy here only because it was here. He pushed towards her, focusing his failing concentration on her, until Fred grabbed him by the arm.

Fred leaned against the pool edge, smoking a cigar. “Did you hear what she said?” Fred asked.

“She only laughed, I was trying to—”

“Ula Mae’s told everyone from here to Carolina about Gladys, inventing half of it and blowing the other half up big as the moon. She’s even spilling out every terrible rumor that’s gone around about . . . Coney Road . . . you didn’t hear her?”

“She was,” Henry belched, “talking.”

Fred colored violently and struck the water and called Ula Mae a name that Henry would never repeat.

“She can walk back to town then—swim! I’ll pay Bubba not to let her back on the ferry. She can’t just go and tell all about that—Hell, she’s Gladys’ friend too, they go to goddamn Sunday school together,” Fred said. He grabbed his hat, shoving it into Henry’s chest as he spoke. “This is the way they are, these women, Henry: nothing but mouths with pretty legs. She’s jealous of Gladys, I’ll tell you, she can’t stand a girl with pretty blond hair like that. She’d tear it all out if she could and laugh about it afterward. What do you think, can’t you see it? Can’t you tell it about her?”

Henry took a jar from beside Fred and drank a long swallow of whiskey. Fred stopped him, his eyed wide and focused toward the diving board. Henry turned. The woman he saw before stood there, nude, bathed in the dull light. All the water stilled and all the rowdy cries ceased. She stood like a goddess carved in honey-colored stone, as though polished marble held all the delicate curves along her hips, or else she was a tongue of flame solidified, swelling and tapering. Her face was unashamed, bearing a small smile not of drunk wildness but of quiet uncruel mischief. In that gleaming sliver of time, she looked at Henry in a way that bathed light into every part of him; not desire, nor lust, but a warmth that would remain forever, smoldering, wakened to flame every now and then or dying down, but never extinguished. Henry watched every sinew in her frame shift as she dove, disappearing without a splash into the water, her feet kicking up like a last burst of fire. He barely heard the hoots and jeers as she swam the length of the pool and rose on the other side, where the woman from Vienna covered her with a towel. She blew a kiss and faded beyond the water and people and debauchery and extinguished from sight.

Fred didn’t speak. Henry pushed through the bodies. Shoved through them, he realized, but it was not from anger so he did not say “Pardon me” as he had the whole night.

He passed Ula Mae, who said “Henry have you seen Fred?”

Henry said, “Yes, and you should avoid it.”

Bissett’s slide blocked him for a moment and he pushed it back, making an off-key slur that Bissett worked into the song anyhow.

Henry passed the baseball men from Valdosta and Athens and Ocala. They yelled gibberish. Henry gently pushed one aside like a door and pushed him back after he had passed through.

Finally, Henry climbed out of the pool. The red-bearded man was still sitting on the bench with a jar of whiskey. Henry said, “Where did that girl go?”

“Girl?”

“The one from the diving board.”

“How’d she dive with so many people?”

“Sheer beauty. You didn’t see her? She swam through and came out right here.”

“Have some hooch.”

Around the edge of the pool there were only couples, or drunks sleeping, or the shining brass of the band.

Outside the sounds were muted. A large moon hung and flickered in the sloshing of the river. No one was out there. Henry would have called out, but he never learned either of their names.

On the ride home, Fred said through clenched teeth, “Uly, I told you not to talk any more about me and Gladys. It ain’t nothing to talk about.”

“Who told you that? I didn’t say a single word, except the bald facts of it.”

“Bullshit. You were blabbing about it to everybody! What’s going to happen when she hears about it?”

“For one thing, she’ll be glad she didn’t end up with a bastard like you.”

“Woman! Take that back, or God so help me—”

“Fred, shut your damned mouth,” said Henry. Ula Mae and Fred stared at him, jaws slack. Henry continued, “I’m sick of hearing you two. All this hatefulness turns my stomach.”

Fred mumbled. Ula Mae sighed. They didn’t speak any more on the way to take Henry home.

The next day, Henry woke up late and told his mother he would not be attending services that day.

“But Henry, the bishop will be there.”

“A bishop isn’t that special. I’ll go next time he stops by.”

He drove out to the river and went to get his hat from where he’d forgotten it on the bench. Henry tried to picture the woman on the diving board again, and he felt, lighter within him, that same warmth he felt when she looked at him. But by then she wasn’t a thing for picturing. He crossed the ferry and headed towards Vienna.


Jackson Culpepper grew up in south Georgia and now lives in east Tennessee with his wife Margaret, two dogs, and two horses. His work has appeared in Armchair/Shotgun, Rock & Sling, The Drum Literary Magazine, and is forthcoming in Real South Magazine.

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