“Wicked” by Megan Newcomer


There is something so elegant about destruction. In every moment of devastation there is a single breath, held in. That single breath beats on the walls of your lungs to escape, but somehow we all cope much better if we don’t exhale. If we resist exhaling, the pain is beautiful, frozen time. After the first destruction, it had become an addiction—a tolerance perhaps. Crawling on the floor with dark bags under my eyes, I want to be destroyed all over again. I don’t want a happy ending. I want a story to tell.


My mom got me a shiny little frog trinket, lime green with sparkles, about as small as a quarter. He came with a tag that read, “One day your prince will come; that’s what they say. But ‘ya gotta kiss a lot of frogs as they pass along the way! So a little luck’s a good thing, and that’s what this frog will do. Just carry him wherever you go and your prince will come to you!”

Thirteen years ago, my dad screened a frog out of the pool and held it up to my face, “look” he said, “it’s alright, he’s dead.” I leaned in eyeing the blubbery beast carefully. And WAM! the frog jumped to my neck and slid down my body. I screamed like a person might scream if their limbs are being ripped apart.

“I hate frogs,” I sort of joked.

“You need it,” my own mother said.

Frog One: He lied and screamed.
Frog Two: He cheated.
Frog Three: He smelled like a soiled bag of weed.
Frog Four: He just wanted to fuck.
Frog Five: He met me a weird time in my life.
Frog Six: He didn’t tell me he had a girlfriend.
Frog Seven: We never wanted each other at the same time.
Frog Eight: He sold cocaine.
Frog Nine: He is not yet my frog. My favorite number is nine.


His ear cradled a fresh cigarette, caressed by his curls. Red blazed eyes seduced me with its vibrant brown pulsing beneath his cap. He looked around the room, for no one, rather to inhale in his surroundings. His bag rested on his back the whole hour. Every twenty minutes he would stand abruptly, leave the room, and enter ten minutes later.

My eyes followed him. When he looked in my direction, my heart raced a little faster than it is supposed to. I’d look away. He’d come back into the room smelling of sweet bitter smoke. My mom would hate him. I smiled. I longed to be in his presence. His gaze passed me, so I approached him.

He told me like you would tell a doctor: these are my problems. He has a smoker’s cough and he’s only twenty-three. He takes prescription pills like candy. He has issue after issue after issue. And the more he talked the more I wanted those issues to be my own. I watched his lips move, slowly without any rush. I couldn’t help bite my own lip. He leaned forward onto the table (in our newly occupied room), hunched over and lit a cigarette, exhaling out the window. The cigarette flirted between his lips as he continued. He didn’t look at me while he was talking, only at his laptop as he instantaneously typed. Why don’t I have any issues? The latter is false. Why don’t I have any of his issues?

I don’t want to admit where we met. I don’t want to admit why we continued to meet. That would ruin the fun. I’ll tell you a secret. How we met was irrelevant and frankly pathetic. Once the ties were broken and my breath was already captured—that—that is where the story is simultaneously beginning and end.


How realistic is a dream? If I daydream, is my dream fiction or not? It really happened. So nonfiction. However, a movie was really acted and happened. But it’s fiction. What is truly fiction? An idea? Is an idea that is unconsciously thought an act of fiction or nonfiction?  What makes an idea false? Can you record it as nonfiction? I’ll play it safe.

My mother advised me to grow a pair and make the move. I don’t remember how I got there, the details have seemed to escape through my pores and wipe my conscious of any memory. It happened like a snap. SNAP. Thrown onto a table, him pushing my back against the wall. SNAP. Shirts on the ground. His lips warm. SNAP. His breath burning, his body sweating on mine. SNAP.

The mattress had no frame. My bra hung from the TV. The blankets were nowhere to be found. Light peaked in through the curtain. We felt the steam rising from our skin, both of us lying on our backs. Our minds naked as our bodies. Fuck. What time is it? He leaned over. Not to me, to his night stand, wiggled a cigarette out of the pack and lit it. I grew bubbly inside, like a child who just received a new toy. A space separated the two of us and that space was so insanely crucial to the health of my well-being. That space between us was the ventilation, the escape. He just smoked his cigarette and I fell for him all over. He turned his head and smiled biting his lip. Round two.


I wish I could communicate the dysfunctionality of my love life. Words don’t do it justice and I don’t think that I myself have quite understood why I make the choices I make.  I broke up with the love of my entire childhood life because he lied to me about a little weed, and a few acid highs. Acid. I broke up with him because he lied to me about acid. Yes, I bailed him out of jail of few times, and he screamed at me every weekend. But that was just a phase. That shit I got over. The acid, I couldn’t get over. Then, one year, four months, and sixteen days later, I fall to my knees for a man trying to match the lifestyle of Hunter S. Thompson. How the fuck do I break up with someone for experimenting with drugs to entering the lifestyle of someone who wants to tip over the edge of all reality.

Cigarettes perfume me. Weed bores me. Acid intrigues me. Cocaine scares me. Frog Nine was excited to show me into his room. Ralph Steadman was all over his walls.

“I know him” I said, where do I know him from? Frog One asked me to buy him a shirt for Christmas with Steadman’s work, that’s how I knew. Steadman did the artwork from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I never read it, but I got to admit, I’m kind of wanting to now.

Frog Nine lights up at my approval of artwork. “I love Steadman and Thompson” he said. “Thompson used to drop acid multiple times a day. I tried that and—” he just shook his head. I said, “stick to cigarettes.” He laughed and nodded.

I received an email from my boss three minutes before I left to go to his house asking me to complete a project by 6:00 a.m. It was midnight and he had work in less than four hours, but we spend the night enjoying not being typical loners. I sat in the stairwell while he smoked his cigarettes every twenty minutes and told me not to worry about Frog Eight. He said he’d take care of it for me.

“I don’t know why you are so nice to me or care about me” he said. “Few people have taken the time to get to know me.” I just smiled back. I saw the corner of his lips perk as he took another inhale.

We went to Taco Bell. Taco Bell, because in the life of Megan Newcomer there is no romance, there is only Taco Bell. He thanked the cashier perhaps fifteen times for his tacos until I dragged him out of the store, both of us laughing. Though he was baked and I was sober. Another dysfunctional element to every love interest in my life. Aren’t they all twisted? But we couldn’t stop laughing. From what? I can’t remember. But I remember the tears streaming out of my eyes and my lungs fighting for air. His smile made me smile.

I went home and googled “Hunter S. Thompson.” You could say I spent four hours and twelve minutes with Thompson, until the sun started to peak through my blinds and my alarms shook me back to reality. I skipped work. I dreamt of Frog Nine with the mind of Hunter S. Thompson and I fell asleep amused.


Drag me screaming
to the depths

of your inner destruction. I
will live there consumed

by your shattered pieces. Grace
my lips but don’t ever plant

the kiss. Amuse me, I like
to be amused, ignore

my presence so I obsess.
Resist me so I can

crave you. Don’t
love me. I want to
want you. Wicked.


Frog One: He lied and screamed.
Frog Two: He cheated.
Frog Three: He smelled like a soiled bag of weed.
Frog Four: He just wanted to fuck.
Frog Five: He met me a weird time in my life.
Frog Six: He didn’t tell me he had a girlfriend.
Frog Seven: We never wanted each other at the same time.
Frog Eight: He sold cocaine.
Frog Nine: Didn’t want me.

“Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee . . . to music and warm bodies and contraceptives . . . to the ‘good life,’ whatever it is and whatever it may be.”

-Hunter S. Thompson


meganMegan Newcomer is a soon-to-be graduate from Salisbury University. She is interested in exploring hybrid essays, which you will see here.

“Honeymoon” by Joy Krause

She paused midway up the last porch step carefully avoiding the rotted wooden edge to listen to the night’s silence. She knew that sound, had known it for her fifty-two years. She smiled in reverence to Trinity, North Carolina’s country nights.

Barbara’s porch features two paint chipped rocking chairs. She sits in one and begins moving back and forth slowly, the stillness still attached to her weathered face, “I’m just a country girl. I live at a dead end street. My neighbors are wonderful. We all know each other. I’ve lived there for years and years.”

Buster, the black & white, totters up the stairs and moves close to Barbara’s hand for a head pat, then eases down belly to wood. His three brothers follow and repeat the ritual. “These are my children.” Buster snorts.

“I don’t have family. Both of my brothers got killed. My mother is in a nursing home. My father’s gone. I have no children. So it’s me and my dogs and I like it.” The dogs, like Barbara, were comfortable with routines and remoteness.

A smile softens the deep crevices around her upper lip. She stops rocking, starts remembering and lights a cigarette.

Deep inhale. “I love crime shows.” Exhale. “That’s how I met Jamie.” Pause. “I was watching Almost Got Away With It on TV one night. I’ve always watched these shows, just didn’t pay attention. But this one got my attention. Oh yeah.”

The episode featured former honor student and star athlete Jamie Wiley. On November 24, 1990, 15 year-old Jamie Wiley picked up a shotgun and methodically gunned down his stepmother Becky, and two of his brothers, Jesse Lee 13 and Tyrone 5. When his ten year old brother Willy ran out of the house, Jamie reloaded the shotgun and went looking for him. He caught Willy in the front yard, dragged him back into the home and shot him in the head. Once everyone was dead, he set fire to the home. When it was engulfed in flames, Jamie walked to a neighbor’s house and called the fire department. Jamie has been in the Wyoming prison system for over twenty years.

As she reminisces about the first time she saw Jamie on TV, the cigarette ash grows longer and licks her finger with heat. She shakes her hand quickly, the ash falling to the floor, she stubs out the cigarette and leans forward with young eyes. “So I watched the whole thing and at the end of it I looked up the prison’s address on the Internet and wrote to him.” Buster’s eyes open, he stands up, reconsiders and settles back down.

She is suddenly cautious. The lighter flame against the end of another cigarette. Deep inhale. Slow rocking. Eyes ahead. “This might sound morbid, but I’ve always wanted to know how it felt to kill someone. I mean, I don’t think anybody could say that they haven’t felt that way. What would it take for someone to kill their own family?”

There. It is said. Her silent thoughts exposed. Her eyes snap open. The rocking abruptly stops. The air becomes prickly. Buster is on his feet, followed by his brothers. Then, like Barbara, they begin pacing back and forth from one end of the porch to the other; like Confederate troops marching into battle.

The troops stop suddenly, Buster bumping headfirst against his brother’s back leg. Barbara slaps the porch post. “So, I thought…I’m going to find out. I’m going to write him.”

“So I did.” She sits back down and begins to rock.

“And he wrote me back.”

Honeymoon_1It had been raining the day the letter arrived. Barbara slogged through the muddy path to the mailbox and opened the dented tin door. There were the bills from Peace Electric Co. and Archdale Animal Clinic, the April issue of Country Living and an envelope stamped in red Inmate. Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution. She gasped, stared at it, looked around quickly, then hid it tightly against her chest and ran toward the porch, each muddy step spraying water up her legs. She was covered with wet grit.

“I stumped my toe running in the house with the letter, and when I was holding it before I opened it, I thought I’m holding a letter that, excuse this, but I’m holding a letter that a murderer wrote.” Tap. Tap. Tap. Raindrops on the tin farmhouse roof. She opens the letter. Tap. Tap. “Hi Barbara, what are you doing today?”

“You ready for this? My favorite TV station is that religious one, Trinity Broadcast Network. I watch all their shows. And the second thing is – I always told people when I get out of here I want to live in North Carolina. So I get your letter and it’s from Trinity, North Carolina. It’s fate.”
She rests the letter gently on the pine knotted kitchen table and gets up. Standing over it, she looks down at its large curly letters as she savors the thrill of danger and of destiny.

The letter contains a killer’s friendship request. It has traveled from a prison cell, to a dirt road mailbox, over a weedy path, up a porch’s rotted steps, into a lonely heart. A heart that had sworn off all men and relationships ten years earlier.

Reaching up to put the dinner dishes back inside the pine cabinet, she stops and stiffens, noticing the dent inside the cupboard door. “This was where my head landed.”

The dent is the size of a tennis ball. “A lot of people don’t like the way Jamie and I are writing each other but I was married to a man worse than him. I mean, he raped me. He beat me for five hours and never went to prison for it.” She closes the door to the memory and sits. Then a cigarette. A tear. No more cigarette. Many more tears. “Last year he beat his girlfriend to death.”

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m a magnet for killers.” I look at the dent in the cabinet then at the growing stack of letters from Wyoming Correctional Institute she has accumulated during this last year.

An amber light drifts in through the faded blue and white ruffled kitchen curtains, caressing her face and softening her skin to a luminescent youthfulness. “I feel so sorry for Jamie. I know he’s done what he’s done, but he’s paid for it. People change.”

Jamie’s parents divorced when he was five. He stayed with his mother in Florida while his younger brother moved with their father across the country. His dad eventually remarried and had two more sons. Jamie’s mother dealt with her loneliness by swallowing pills during the day then taking Jamie into her bed each night for comfort.

Between the ages of five and fifteen, Jamie was invited to visit his father’s new family three times. In 1990, just after his fifteenth birthday, his father decided that Jamie would live with them and he could bring along his beloved spaniel, Sandy. His step-mother did not want Jamie there, causing much disharmony between her and her husband.

For a few months, Jamie thrived in school. He wanted desperately to please his father. He won school wrestling matches then came home and studied late most nights to maintain an A average . At home, however, his father and stepmother continued to argue. She felt Jamie was an intrusion in their family’s lives and she wanted him gone.

One afternoon Jamie came home from school and Sandy didn’t run up to greet him. His stepmother walked into the living room. Jamie turned to her.
“Have you seen Sandy?”

“He ran out of the house this morning and a truck killed him.”

Jamie walked into the back bedroom and quietly loaded his shotgun.

Rocking gently back and forth, back and forth, porch floor slats creaking rhythmically, Buster snuggles in Barbara’s lap. She gazes out at the night. “Jamie’s the smartest person I’ve ever known. Since he’s been in prison he’s earned a college degree and has lots of computer awards. If I’m having a problem with my computer, he tells me over the phone how to fix it in two seconds. He says he wants to make a million dollars and take care of me. Can you believe it? He wants to take care of me.”

“I’m not someone that really loves, I’m a loner and I’m scared to love because I’ve been…I can’t say that word.” She says that word. “I’ve been shit on so much. Before I met him I didn’t feel like I had anybody else that cared about me.”

Nearly a year after that first letter, Barbara flew to Wyoming and visited Jamie in prison. “It was just like I pictured it. He grabbed me and kissed me. It was the first time he’s ever kissed a girl.” Jamie proposed to Barbara that day. She said yes.

Honeymoon_2It is unlikely he will ever be released from his Wyoming prison. Barbara will stay in the North Carolina farmhouse where she grew up. They will never be physically intimate because conjugal visits are prohibited.

She will marry Jamie soon by signing a document, having it notarized and sent to the prison’s warden. With Jamie’s signature it becomes legal and they are husband and wife on paper.

Holding up a keychain braided with colorful strands of plastic gimp, she says, ”Jamie made this for me.” She twirls it around, then sets it down on top of the stack of letters.

“This is a perfect relationship for me. Jamie loves me unconditionally. I have my independence. No one is trying to tell me what to do, where to go, how long to stay. Most of my relationships have been like the Honeymooners. With Jamie, I feel like I really am on a Honeymoon.”

Joy Krause is a creative writing student at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. For several years, she has researched the psychology of serial killers and the people who are attracted to them. She recently completed a documentary film called Serial Killer Groupies – A Love Story.

“The Real Thing: My Life in Coke” by Deborah Gold

When I was ten, I would sit on the floor in front of the television, winking at the door-length mirror angled towards me. Wearing periwinkle Danskin elastic-waist shorts and a striped sleeveless top, I hugged my bare knees to my chest, tilted my head like Agent 99, and watched myself kiss my kneecaps–chewily, the way the stewardesses of Love, American Style kissed their weekly dates. This was done to the harmonies of “I’d Like to Teach the Word to Sing”–the infamous Coke anthem, in which gauze-smocked hippies from around the small world stood circled atop a sunset hill, singing, swaying, and tipping icy, dark bottles to their lips. It was a jingle that evolved into a real song, somehow, and was the only piano number, besides the intro to “Mrs. Robinson,” that I regularly practiced.

I kissed and re-tilted, one eye squinting up to analyze my style in the mirror, even though this destroyed the illusion of the kissee: the orange-haired Ned Van Meter, who could burp like a bullfrog and was nerdy enough to be my first real romantic possibility. Unlike the softball players with their monkey-headed buzz cuts, or the feverishly pink-cheeked Edwin, long-lashed and fragile, Ned was the class science brain, but he could also be as silly and giddy as me. If Monty Python had existed then, we’d have been swapping dead-parrot jokes, but instead I was charmed simply by his deep-throated ribbets. And when his Toad-style glasses were replaced with thin gold frames, he dazzled with his hair and freckles and ability to focus a microscope to reveal the scooting one-celled paramecia our class had grown in jars of water-soaked straw.

I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.

The sun glowed on that TV hilltop–it was obvious even in black and white. The teenagers swooned and swayed, passing Coke bottles down the line. “I’m going to marry you, Ned,” I declared. This was sacred: he was only the second boy I’d sworn that to after my dog.

They called it “The Hilltop Commercial,” and it went down in advertising history, although for years, I had no idea anyone else treasured it besides a few other ‘70s piano/organ students and me. Coke might as well have been a martini for all I was allowed to drink it at that age, but I was hooked on the dream of communal love, and, somewhere down the line, world peace.

My balloon popped a month later, upon seeing Ned curled up in tears, the glasses punched from his face. He was lying on the floor, hands clamped between the knees of his black shorts, the buzz-cut boys having kicked him in the crotch, a cruel fact of male life previously unknown to me. His halo of desirability–and my compassion–fizzled. The paramecia jar in his hand had slipped and shattered, stinking up the room with a brackish smell that lasted weeks.

Before long, my girlfriends and I started kissing pillows for group critique and stretching shirts over our knees to see how we’d look as giant-boobed Playboy Bunnies. But for those private nights in front of the mirror, the Real Thing was all golden promise. Only later, when I could sneak a cup at a birthday party or temple Oneg Shabbat, would the actual Coke turn out to have a rusty tang, sinus-stinging fizz, and a taste only sickly-sweet.

Like Fritos, Barbies, Christmas caroling, marshmallow-topped desserts, straight hair, training bras, Ouija boards, navy windbreakers, clackers (which actually could knock someone’s brain out), spray shampoo, and Wonder Bread…like all those all-American things, for me Coke remained out of reach. With my mother a late-1950s British emigre and my father a third-generation Jewish New Yorker, we didn’t fit anywhere, much less in the not-quite-New South of the 1970s, but the real drag was that my parents would not even let us try. While they celebrated their triumph in breaking a restrictive covenant barring Jews from the cul-de-sac, the real magic spells of assimilation–the miracle of stacked Pringles or Easter eggs with mallow whites, the enchanted promise of vanity sets and Dressy Tressy dolls, and later the casual hook of a bra, the snap of a pair of velveteen Viceroys, and the aerosol spray of deodorant in gym class–were necessities invisible to my parents, if not scorned outright. Yet all I needed was the right combination of power objects to spark my alchemical change into someone who belonged: if Plastigoop could be transmuted into something as delightful as Incredible Edibles, then surely so could I.

So when my dad began offering me two quarters for the temple Coke machine, pre-teen Hebrew School became a little more worthwhile. Especially since I had no choice about going.

They weren’t messing around when they put a Coke machine in the synagogue’s Hebrew School hallways. Someone knew that it would take more than the Lord our God, parents, and a nonexistent thirst for spiritual knowledge to keep kids coming back–and while we weren’t allowed to use it around Saturday youth services, so weighted with their relevance, halting guitar, and Beatles songs (“see, the Fool on the Hill is actually Moses…” and nobody was even stoned), the machine was fair game for Sundays and Hebrew School on Tuesday-Thursday afternoons.

Ani holaich al bet ha-safer–I go to school/the house of the book–is the only thing I still remember, along with Sheket bevakashah!–be quiet–the number one Hebrew school phrase since the time of the sages. Bar/Bat Mitzvah class began after regular Sunday School was done: in the sanctuary upstairs, the eternal light beamed on and the cushioned chairs were all flipped shut; the classroom wing was dark and empty, lit only by the promising glare of the Coke machine, which shook the floor tiles with its hum. I sat near the back of the classroom full of 12-year-olds on the brink of “manhood” and “young womanhood,” terms intoned in vain as the folded paper footballs and kippah frisbees flew. Those too slack to learn the dot-notes to sing their Bar Mitzvah haftorah portions carried cassette recordings of the Hebrew School principal singing them, or even worse, stumbled through English trans-literations; between debating the lifeboat dilemmas of our “Still, Small Voice” textbook, we listened endlessly to these chanted recitations. The classroom itself smelled of wax polish and rust, and somehow the smell became the taste, making the machine Coke brought back from break time always disappointingly flat and sour. But given my two quarters, each week I hoped for the best.

We’d moved across the county since joining this synagogue, and naturally the burden of driving fell to my mother, the non-believer, and only occasionally to my dad, who always made us so late that the reproving glares were not worth the insistence that he drive us. By the year Bar Mitzvah class came around, though, there was a kid, Zack Goldstein, from my own junior high to carpool with, and on this particular rainy morning, I’d ridden with Zack and his dad. A curly-haired wise guy, Zack was short and gremlin-like, with a perpetual Alfred E. Neuman grin. I was even further down the real school popularity scale, so outside of these car rides, we pretended not to know each other.

A hard March rain was falling and the Goldsteins’ cramped car had been steaming. Sunday School had been routinely tedious, full of “modern” Hebrew practice dialogues about movies, bus stops, and television, meant to assure us that life in the Promised Land was every bit as convenient as it was here, aside from having a few thousand trees to plant and wars to fight with unpredictable regularity. And, hey, Eretz Israel might be a desert, but it was groovy enough to have 608_large too. Kosher for Passover, but still the real thing.

Halfway through hearing everyone’s haftorah portions chanted even more haltingly than the week before, the defeated Bar Mitzvah coach declared a break, and we funneled out into the hallway. I bought a sweating, lukewarm Coke, looking away as Zack tried to feed the popped-off bottlecaps back through the coin slot. (The real “hoodlums,” as the Junior Congregation rabbi called them, were able to stick their arms up the dispenser at the bottom and pull the bottles loose, like a vet delivering a breached calf.)

At least we were allowed to wear pants to Sunday classes, although girls still could not wear jeans. I was wearing a pair of brick-pink, elastic-waisted pants I’d struggled over in Home Ec, sewing and re-sewing the bunched seams, which were still not straight. I had to wear them somewhere, though, and their discomfort matched perfectly this gray day of sheet rain. I drank the disappointing Coke, so different from the glory I continued to imagine–like every other object in this synagogue, it seemed flatly devoid of mystery. From the licorice taste of the Hadassah sponge cake fingers, to the playground’s wonky swings, to the locked Sukkot filled with dead leaves, where was the power? Where was the God who would swoop down to write on the wall, or demand our parents sacrifice us? The Eternal Light’s glow in a darkened sanctuary could inspire a little shiver, but that was about it.

A grinding sound came from the Coke machine, and before I could get in trouble for being a witness to Zack’s coin-slot destruction, I escaped into the restroom. There, in the yellow light of the stall, I saw the stain on my brick-pink pants and, with a cold, sinking feeling, knew what it was. My first period. The real thing. And I didn’t even have a bra yet.

The ladies’ room smelled of wet paper towels, and the light was too jaundiced to let me really see. The stain looked more like an inkblot than anything: how miserably perfect that it should happen here, I thought, where I’d spent so many unwilling hours. Now my years of Sunday School would always culminate in this absurd memory.

I had no purse, nor a pair of the dime-holding loafers our Scout leader had told us to wear for just this emergency–nor was there even was a machine with a predictably broken coin crank and picture of a calm, poised nurse. So I stalled, prayed for invisibility, and inched back to the classroom, where the fact that no one batted an eye meant the teacher and unofficial minyan of twelve-year-olds had surely guessed my horribly private business.

Through the long ride home with the Goldsteins, I perched on the edge of the vinyl seat, sick from stale cigar fumes and the aftertaste of cola syrup, trying to think of the words I’d need to break this to my mother. The windows steamed up as the gray rain poured on; my arms chafed inside a hot raincoat I knew I could not take off. If I’d never stepped out into that hallway, I suspected, and never bought that sub-standard Coke, and never been aggravated by Zack’s antics and the adenoidal droning of my classmates, things could have gone better and this unwelcome initiation might well have held off.

From the golden Hilltop to Olympic Moments to American Idol and even a Bachelor finale, it’s clear the masterminds at Coca-Cola want us to associate their product (God forbid it be called a “drink”) with the peaks–those utterly un-complex, photographable moments that chart the highest points on the graph of your life…as if such pure and plottable points even exist. Certainly Coke bubbled through my own Wonder Years, yet from that first high point on the Hilltop, as I practiced my movie-star kiss, the trajectory descended, with each new Coke marking an ever deeper plunge into the murky adolescent abyss.

My third life-jarring romance with Coke was actually Tab–the original, saccharine formula, dark as prune juice, that came in pebbled bottles with cryptic yellow print. This was almost a year before the tired-tasting pink cans appeared, in our state, at least. (Canned Fresca, flavored with equal parts grapefruit and shampoo, had reigned long already as the drink of babysitters.) Decades before Diet Coke, Tab was a forcibly acquired taste–that is, acquired in the way a naive teen might force herself to like Wild Turkey at a driveway party. The flavor was awful enough to convince American gals that the poison was doing its work, and the carbonation felt harsh enough to be slenderizing all by itself. And if the bottles were chilled almost down to freezing, the taste wasn’t so obvious.

That first Tab was handed to me by the unlikeliest of girls: Rachel was counterculture to the max, far beyond caring about bras, hobbit feet, or the glassy, knowing red of her eyes. And, yet she was the most successfully seductive of all us nubiles–the drama teacher’s word–as it turned out. In her paisley smock and white painter’s pants that showed skin through a frayed square, Rachel tossed me one of the bottles she’d ripped off from our school machine. “Say, ‘we’re going on a diet,’” she proclaimed, like it was just one more lark–just the way she’d declared that everyone would drop acid April 24 or have a hitchhiking race to the National Mall and back. Rachel was easy to idolize because she was so vividly in-the-moment, as we all aspired to be. Be here now, we commanded each other, half-joking, but she was here now, and now, with a vengeance. Rachel was appetite itself, so when she declared a diet, it seemed unlikely, yet a gesture of friendship easier for me to share than a hash joint or a trip to the urban clinic where the girls all got their IUDs.

For Rachel, a diet meant drinking Tab (or mixing rum and Tab on the smoking court), eating chips without the usual roast beef sub, and smoking more pot, which somehow killed her appetite as it jacked up everyone else’s. With her cascading kinky hair, she was what I longed to be, despite her blackened feet, upturned nose, and the doughy waist she liked to pinch over the top of her jeans. At home she could get laid and even smoke pot with a bong made from a vacuum cleaner pipe, right upstairs from her tiny, grandmother-ish mother, who, with her cat-eye glasses, resembled a timid Flannery O’Connor. Rachel’s father was divorced and a callous creep by reputation, long before such dads were commonplace in the suburbs. She hated to visit but sometimes ran into him at a neighborhood bar, where he’d bum money in exchange for buying her machine cigarettes.

Rachel spoke in a self-conscious slide whistle of a style that simultaneously savored words and made fun of them–everything was pronounced in quotes, and she began most sentences with the word “say,” as in “say, ‘my car is a junk pit,’” the way a mom might speak for a baby and wave its arm. Rarely did Rachel say anything straight, except once, months later, when I asked her if she’d been seeing Duane, the guy I’d hoped was my boyfriend and she answered simply, “I thought you knew that.” I jolted to earth then, but like everything else, this barely seemed to faze her.

Rachel wasn’t an earth mother–our hippie high school had several–but she was fearlessly, unbeautifully sexual, in a way you’d never see on TV. She’d sit in the hallway with her best friend on her lap, finger-combing the girl’s flame-red hair where it spilled from her bandana, blabbering about blowjobs and payback; she wore out-of-character wire frame glasses and a serious expression only when she drove herself.

In any case, hedonist Rachel was the last girl in the world you’d expect to propose a diet, but she did as we sat out on the straw-yellow grass, toasting the notion with the bottles of warm Tab she’d stolen for both us. In hindsight, that might have been when she’d started screwing Duane, whom I’d adored since February, but whatever the inspiration, we basked on the school’s ragged spring lawn, breathing in the first hints of humidity and honeysuckle, and throwing back medicinal shots of Tab together.

That was the first step, and from there our paths split. Rachel worked off two pounds by having sex, she said, letting me think she meant with her best friend’s brother. Her “lust life” sounded easy, while my heart thumped sickly every time the phone would ring, and I filled the time between rare Friday evening summons from Duane with weighing and measuring foods according to my father’s neglected diet-and-calorie guide. Worried by my determination, my mother banned the few diet foods I could scrounge up, just as she had the old longed-for junk food–first my hidden stash of Ayds was forbidden, then the bread made with wood shavings, and finally fake diabetic chocolate ice cream the color of Quick Tan. But I lost 46 pounds in the next six months, through counting calories down to fractions, marching miles around the block in sizzling heat, and straining to learn ballet with elementary school girls.

I got dumped by Duane and told the truth by Rachel after she’d abandoned the diet in favorite of actual cocaine, the real real thing, which for her did the weight-loss trick with much less trouble and also helped her waitress double-shifts in a seafood house where the smell of deep-fried shrimp infused her hair and spilled sweet tea granulated her skin. With my palms yellowed by carrots, I turned full-on anorexic with grief. If Duane couldn’t find me beautiful like this, well, at least he’d have to pay attention, I wrongly thought, and finally get “worried,” like the rest of our crew. Instead, he moved away to Alabama.

Tab became my lifeblood but was banned from my house, and outside, people frowned when I drank it after I sank below 100 pounds. Despite the taste, I drank my Tab warm when I could get it, as the slightest chill would freeze me. Every afternoon I crashed and huddled on the sunlit couch in a wrap-around patchwork sweater, clutching my clavicles, scribbling Joni Mitchell imitations, and conjuring the memory of Duane’s every tobacco-flavored kiss and weary monosyllable. I turned into such a skeleton that even my bone-loving ballet teacher chided me; Rachel became a star waitress who worked so much I could never see her, and from a party, in the middle of an Allman Brothers riff, Duane took off for the Heart of Dixie without so much as a glance back at me.

I remember few Tab commercials–just a bottle sucking its sides into an hourglass silhouette–but it didn’t take perfect harmonies for Tab to sell itself to girls like me. Alone at 89 pounds, caged in my perfect, graspable skeleton of grief, a year from U-turning to gain back every pound, what stuck in my head was not a jingle or slogan, but the spring fever pact we’d made that afternoon in the grass: my too-real passion bubbling up through pebbled glass, Rachel’s lilting laugh, and the first enchanted, syrupy dose of that most artificial of all drinks.

Now, as a mid-life adult free to let my cravings rage as high as 300 or more liters of Diet Coke a year, it’s finally becoming the pause that depresses–the choice between enduring another morning headache without it or succumbing and setting off another mini-bout of guilt. My friends and I still scarf down the diet drinks, stocking up during Dollar Days at Walgreens, but Diet Coke too has joined the ranks of virtuous foods gone bad: the dentist says it has acid-washed my tooth enamel and must be quit; the doctor scolds that there’s as much caffeine in a Diet Coke as a cup of coffee, which doesn’t feel any more true than it did the first time he said it; and the women’s magazines, having earned maximum mileage from assuring that diet drinks don’t cause cancer, now feature colorful call-outs of the newest research showing that artificial sweeteners overtax the kidneys and lead to early failure and, perhaps worse, somehow counteract efforts at weight loss by convincing your brain to consume the calories that ought to match the drinks’ sweetness level. At best, according to the insufferable Dr. Oz, diet soda makes the body crave sweet things all the more. Perhaps this explains the credo every dieter knows–that the perfect pairing with brownies is always Diet Coke.

Water is the best drink! is every professional’s bubbly advice. And no, sadly, they don’t even mean water made palatable by so much as a tincture of Crystal Lite. So some days I strain to get my bubble fix from plain seltzer; while other, weaker days I’m left pondering the mystery of why a 32-ounce bottle of soda can cost 99 cents on special, but the 16-ounce bottles at the grocery checkout never dip below $1.49. Of course the Coke moguls have that one all figured out, knowing that while we might chug from a 2-liter soda bottle at home, no grocery-bearing woman desperate for her fix wants to be seen doing that in her car, or in front of her kids, or having to use her clenched knees as a cupholder. Although it can be done, let me be the first to tell you.

Apple trees, honey bees, harmony, company, and the snow-white polar bears of love
Even today, is it possible to watch a Coke commercial and not be filled with longing–for memories that don’t even exist? Real or aspartame, with the Real Thing, is there even any difference?

Deborah Gold is the pseudonym of a writer, teacher, and foster parent.

“Tobacco Road Revisited” by Rita Welty Bourke

What must my father have felt when he came into the house at the end of the day, and his five-year-old daughter held her arms up to him, and her breasts were nearly as large as those of a grown woman? I imagine he patted her on the head and murmured some endearment. Then he would have turned to my mother. There was no need for words. She would understand, and gather Annie Catherine up in her arms and set her at the kitchen table. Somehow, they had to move beyond that uneasy moment.

My father surely wondered, when he turned away from those outstretched arms, what lay in store for this child, and what other troubles might be visited upon him. In his mid-forties, he’d already spent years working a hardscrabble farm, and there were hard years yet to spool out in front of him. He’d watched his two daughters change from cooing babies into pencil-thin little girls, needy children at a time when all things were in short supply: shoes, food, clothing. When Annie Catherine’s breasts began to swell, he must have felt despair. This was his first-born child, and she was his favorite. How could he pick her up, hug her, stroke her hair as he’d done before this happened?

A year later Annie Catherine began elementary school. My mother wrapped strips of cloth around her breasts to hide what was happening. On the day of the first snowfall Annie came home with a stain on the back of her dress.

They took her to the family doctor.

“It’s her menses,” the doctor said. “She’s gone into early puberty. Precocious puberty, it’s called. Not much you can do about it. Keep an eye on her. Bring her back to see me in a year.”

“She’s entered womanhood?” my mother asked.

“It appears so,” the doctor said.

My father cupped his hands over his face, drew in a deep breath, and exhaled.

They left the doctor’s office and went home to a silent house. It would remain silent for a long time. Through no fault of her own, Annie Catherine had done something nearly unforgivable. In a way that no one could fully explain or even comprehend, she had brought shame on the family.

My parents watched to see if this malfunction of the endocrine system might be visited on their other daughter. It was not. Rosemary, who was two years younger than Annie Catherine, was normal in every way.

Then my brother was born, and my father was pleased. Finally, he had a son who would carry on the family name, a boy who would help him in the fields and one day inherit the farm.

Marta came next, a beautiful child with curly blonde hair, and she brought joy into the house. Here was a child my father could toss into the air, bounce on his knees, smother with kisses. Annie Catherine was older now, and there was no longer a need for the wraps. Her classmates had caught up with her. The silence had lifted.

You were a blue baby, my mother told me. She’d wanted to make sure the house was clean before her confinement. There was food to be prepared, dishes washed, beds made. When my mother was finished with these tasks she went outside, filled a bucket from the well, carried it to the house and washed the kitchen floor. All the while she kept her knees pressed tight together. The pain came in waves, and at times she had to stop until it let up. Then she would resume her chores.

The doctor scolded her for not calling him, for not taking to her bed and pushing against the pain. “You should know better,” he said. “You could have killed this child.”

My skin was blue from lack of oxygen, my limbs cold and stiff. Annie Catherine remembers seeing me lying next to my mother. She was horrified by the blood on my forehead, the color of my skin. Years later she shuddered when she recounted how still I lay on that stained sheet, how weak my cry when it finally came.

My father visited the room where my mother lay, but he wanted no part of this fragile, unhealthy child. Annie Catherine took care of me until my mother recovered.

Years later, when I was in my teens, Annie told me the story of how I came to be. In the district where we lived, the government was drafting married men who had four children. The younger ones had been called up early on. The Irvin boy had volunteered and been sent to the Pacific; his family had not heard from him for nearly a year. Uncle Cramer, who served in the infantry under General George S. Patton, died during the assault on Sicily.

The D-day invasion and the slog through France brought thousands of casualties, and there was no end in sight. When the countryside was stripped of its single men, the draft board called up married men, then married men with one child, then two, then three, now four. Every day brought news of someone else who had been ordered to report for duty. My father was nearly 50, and he was needed on the farm, but in Adams County, Pennsylvania, those things no longer mattered. There was a quota that had to be filled.

My parents sat in the car outside church one Sunday morning and talked about what was sure to happen. Annie Catherine, Rosemary, Robbie, and Marta were in the back seat, waiting for the conversation to end so they could go home. Annie Catherine may have been the only one who understood the significance of what they were discussing. She knew the Irvin boy, had seen him in his uniform before he’d shipped out, had thought him unbearably handsome.

“Cannon fodder,” my father said. “They’re wanting cannon fodder.”

Annie Catherine remembered that expression, though at the time she had only a vague idea of what it meant.

“Surely they won’t draft you,” my mother said. “Surely it won’t come to that.”

“They say we lost ten thousand men at Normandy. We’re losing hundreds more every single day.”

“I don’t know what I’d do if something ever happened to you,” my mother said. “I couldn’t go on without you.”

They dreaded going to the mailbox in the morning, afraid of what they might find.

“Another child will keep me safe,” my father said. “What do you say, Christine? Shall we try?”

When she turned eighteen, Annie headed to the city and a job at The Baltimore Sun. On weekends she rode the bus home, and I learned that career girls shave their legs. “Why are you doing that?” I asked one Sunday afternoon. She was using my father’s electric razor.

She stood and lifted the hem of her skirt to her knees. “Which one looks better?”

“That one,” I said, pointing to the shaved leg. She nodded, brushed her hand across my cheek.

She cut her hair short, wore pretty clothes, and tweezed her eyebrows so her face had a look of perpetual surprise.

One day I’ll go out into the world like Annie, I told myself. I’ll buy clothes as pretty as hers. I’ll wear makeup. I’ll be my own person.

Annie had been in the city for six months when she met a sailor just back from the Mediterranean. They fell in love and married. He was a good husband, though he never gave up his wandering ways.

Rosemary was the next to leave. On a Saturday night when she was seventeen, her boyfriend got up from the sofa and took Rosie by the hand. “We’re getting married,” he said, pulling Rosie close to him.

“Whoopee,” my father said.

It was an exclamation he would regret for the rest of his life. He hadn’t meant it, not in the way they took it. What he wanted to say was that it was a big step. They had no idea how big. Rosie was so young and needy. She’d been crippled by polio when she was fourteen. She spent weeks in the hospital in Gettysburg, then at a special facility in York. Every night the family gathered in the kitchen to pray for her.

In the midst of all this, Rosie trying to recover, bills mounting, prayers offered up, a car stopped in front of our house. Three men got out and walked up the cement path. The townspeople had taken up a collection to help with Rosie’s expenses, the spokesman said. It amounted to $50.00.

My father shook his head. “I thank you all the same,” he said, “but we’ll get by. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but there are others who need it worse. Rosie is going to walk again.” It would take years to pay the hospitals, doctors, and physical therapists.

That single word my father had uttered, that callous exclamation, could not be recalled. Rosie and her boyfriend were out the door. More than a year would pass before Rosie came home again. When she did, she brought her husband and baby son. She’d dressed the little boy in a denim jumpsuit and he stared at my father, then lifted a hand and began to trace the wrinkles in my father’s face. Rosie looked on, and she seemed content.

Then Marta married, a hastily-arranged ceremony to a neighbor boy whose sexual prowess was legendary. She told my parents she was pregnant. It wasn’t true, but Marta was used to having things her way.

My father hung his head, disappointed by yet another daughter.

Five years later my father nearly killed this man who had married his daughter. They’d had an argument, Marta and her husband, and he’d pinned her against the wall, his hands around her neck. She brought her knee up into his groin. He let her go, and when he was able, he went to their bedroom, took his pistol from the top drawer of his nightstand, and came back. The shot he fired at Marta parted her hair but miraculously drew little blood. The bullet lodged in the wall.

At some point Marta called for help. I remember my father running a stop sign in his haste to get there, overturned kitchen chairs, Marta crying, her husband waving his pistol. He was a large man, red-faced in his fury.

My father tackled him. Somehow, he was able to back Marta’s husband up against the basement door. The door splintered, and the two men bounced down the basement stairs, my father managing to stay on top, riding Marta’s husband like a sled. They hit the floor and the gun skittered across the concrete. Marta’s husband was still conscious, but barely.

“Let’s kill him while we have the chance,” my father said to my brother, who was by then halfway down the stairs.

Later, he said he was glad he hadn’t done it. “I’d have regretted it all my life,” he said.

Marta came home with her two little boys and began divorce proceedings. We’d shared a bedroom all the years we were growing up. We did again, for a month. Then I went off to college.

My mother’s gift to my future in-laws on the occasion of their first meeting was a loaf of homemade bread. “I baked it this morning,” she said, smoothing the Saran Wrap around the loaf and holding it out to Mrs. Macklin. “It’s still warm.”

A moment passed, a beat too long. Then Mrs. Macklin reached out and took the loaf from my mother’s hand.

“It’s whole wheat,” my mother said. “I grind it myself. The wheat, I mean. We grow it here on the farm, so it’s as fresh as can be. I have a grinder in the basement. I hope you like it. The bread, I mean. I thought you might enjoy it, something homemade, different from what you get in the city.”

It was a long speech for my mother. I could hear the nervousness in her voice, the hesitation, the slight tremor.

Mrs. Macklin waited until my mother was finished. “I’m sure it’s wonderful,” she said. Her voice was deep, her words precise.

My father stood next to my mother, his arm around her waist.

Mr. Macklin stepped forward and grasped my father’s hand. “We’ll be heading back to St. Louis in the morning,” he said, “but it was nice to meet you. I’m glad we had this chance to get together.” He nodded to my mother.

“And your lovely daughter,” he said, glancing at me. Then they were gone.

My father did not let go of my mother until the Macklin car was out of sight. I could see he was troubled. The meeting had not gone well.

He hadn’t known what to say to this couple who came into his house, this man and woman so smartly dressed it put my father to shame. The Macklins had sat on the edge of their chairs as if afraid they might be contaminated.

The young man I’d chosen to marry was not like us. His father was an advertising executive from St. Louis, Missouri. The family belonged to a country club. The Macklin children had grown up swimming in the club pool, lunching in the club restaurant, caddying for the club golfers, dancing at club balls. How would I fit into a world so different from anything I’d ever known?

My father had never traveled more than a hundred miles from the place where he was born. Now his youngest daughter was leaving home, heading halfway across the country. Would he ever see her again?

Inside the car that pulled away from our house that night, I learned later, things were far worse. “You can’t marry this girl,” my fiancé’s father told his son. “Her family is no better than a bunch of Georgia crackers. That place is like Tobacco Road.”

It was a book I’d never read. I had a degree in English. The book was an American classic, but it had escaped me. I’d read Faulkner, Hemingway, Welty, O’Connor, but not Caldwell.

“Tobacco Road” meant poverty, I assumed, but my father had prospered in the last ten years. Our car was only a year or two older than the Macklin car.

Tobacco was something they grew down south. We grew corn, wheat, and alfalfa. We had a herd of registered Holstein cattle. My father took pride in the food he produced, often pointing out things in the grocery store that might have come from our farm: milk, ice cream, flour, breakfast cereal, bread, butter, cheese.

The next day I set out for the local library to check out Erskine Caldwell’s book. I drove through a flock of birds fighting over something in the weeds beside the road. The birds were pecking at it, fighting over it, the victors flying off with great hunks of it.

I was halfway to town before I realized they were eating my mother’s homemade bread.

The Lesters were poor sharecroppers, I learned that afternoon. When they came into money they went to town and bought a car. In a wild, exuberant ride, Dude circled round and round the dusty yard in front of their shack. Granny Lester ran out to join the festivities. She slipped and fell under the wheels.

Crushed and bleeding, she managed to roll onto her stomach. She began inching toward the house.

“Is she dead yet?” Ada asked her husband Jeeter. “I don’t reckon she could stay alive with her face all mashed like that.”

Jeeter touched her with the toe of his shoe. “She ain’t stiff yet,” he said, “but I don’t reckon she’ll live. You help me tote her out in the field and I’ll dig a ditch to put her in.”

They carried the body by the hands and feet, and they put it down in the broom-sedge.

I closed the book and sat for a long time, thinking of what my fiance’s father had said. I’d thought “Tobacco Road” referred to the dirt road leading from the highway to our farm. This was far worse. He’d seen my father as no better than Jeeter Lester who put his mother in the grave without knowing if she was dead.

We were married a month later in a private ceremony with only my parents, my siblings, and a few close friends present. When the service was over my husband held out his arms to me, and I went to him. This was where I belonged. The chasm with his family would heal or it would not. In the meantime, we would form a new family.

When our children were small we visited my parents in Gettysburg at least once a year. My father taught them to feed the newborn calves, pick vegetables from the garden, drive a tractor when they were old enough.

My husband’s parents moved to Florida. I think they came to regret the things they said, but I don’t know for certain. We never spoke of it.

They never met again, my husband’s parents and mine. They exchanged notes for a time. Then even that small bit of contact was allowed to wither.

Of our four parents, only my mother is left. My father has been gone for eight years, my husband’s parents ten.

My mother grieves for my father. “It’s awfully hard when you lose your mate,” she says. It’s been eight years, and still she grieves.

My parents visited Nashville the year before my father died. He drove the seven hundred miles from his farm in Pennsylvania to our house in Tennessee, navigating the super highways, learning about inner belts and outer belts, seeing a part of the country he never expected to see.

He wondered if he might learn to play the guitar and write love songs like my husband did. It seemed a good profession. We tried to teach him a “C” chord, but his fingers were too arthritic, too work-hardened, too calloused.

He loved magnolia trees, Jack Daniels whiskey, and the mince pie I baked for him.

I showed him the room where I work, my computer, printer, copier, my books and research materials. He marveled at the new technologies: internet, email, instant messaging.

He recalled a prayer his mother had taught him. Would I type it into my word processor and make a copy for him?

I remember a line: Assist us in this hour of our necessities. He said he’d prayed that prayer the day I left home. He’d asked God to watch over me. He was sorry he’d had so little time to be a father. His life had been full of necessities, he said. One necessity after another. But there was joy, too.

My husband keeps a picture of me in his wallet. It was taken when I was a teenager living on my parents’ farm. There’s a larger, framed copy on the pie crust table in our living room. It sits among photographs taken of our three children.

It’s hard to believe I once looked like that.

The girl in the picture is lovely. She wears a touch of lip color. Her brows are lifted, as if in expectation. Simple pearl earrings are her only adornment. There’s an adventuresome quality in the tilt of her head, a measure of self-confidence I didn’t know I had.

RitaRita Welty Bourke’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines, most recently in The Chattahoochee Review. You can find more information about her and her work at www.ritaweltybourke.com.

“Kerry” by Ian Hoppe

“I mean, what am I, a fuckin’ sailor?” he slurred as he did the one-eye-drunk-squint out of the windshield of his brand new, base model F-150.

We were barreling down Highway 90 along the Mississippi coast, weaving in and out of traffic in the morning sun. My head was bobbing with each movement of the steering wheel, turning on occasion to stare droopy-faced at the angry morning commuters we were passing.

We had spent the last three hours at The Miss-A-Bama, an aptly named bar in a prefab metal building on Highway 90 near the Mississippi-Alabama line. I was only eighteen, but the middle-aged, rough-cut bartender said I looked like Russell Crowe, so she let me drink and even bought me a couple of Miller High-Life and several shots of Jack Daniel’s. We left because Kerry got mad and kicked the bathroom-stall door off of its hinges. I don’t remember why.

We were electricians working the night shift at Signal International Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. We had been working 7 days a week, 12-14 hours per day for the last two months and would be for the foreseeable future.

When Hurricane Katrina was crawling across the gulf, the crews on floating drill rigs were evacuated. The rigs themselves ended up getting pushed into the Louisiana Delta and flipped onto their side, where they lay for months afterwards. Crews were slowly collecting them, turning them upright, and towing them into the gulf shipyards for clean-up and renovation. The East Yard, where we were working, had four square bays in which these rigs were parked. The whole place was surrounded by a ten foot chain-link fence topped with three strands of rusty barbed wire. The actual bays were a small part of the overall yard, most of which was warehouses, administrative and communication offices, fabrication buildings, and worn-out trailers that housed the large and seemingly incarcerated population of Indian welders and painters; fodder for another story.

The process of returning these rigs to working order was grueling. Because of the huge number of these rigs that were damaged, the schedule for a complete rebuild was roughly a month. That included demolition of all existing electrical and mechanical components, reinstallation, inspections, and a fresh coat of paint on everything. This kind of timeline meant everyone was constantly working on top of each other, the stress level was high, and the heat was especially oppressive.

What Kerry was angry about was the announcement at the end of the previous shift that if the rig we were working on wasn’t finished by the scheduled date, it would be towed to its next drilling location off the coast of Brazil with a select crew aboard to finish the job en route. And, given the drill-pit fire that had occurred the previous night, setting us back several hours, we were not going to be done on time. I was excited about the prospect; Kerry was not. Though I never saw any physical evidence of it, I got the feeling that he had a methamphetamine problem, mostly because of his fast tic, periodic outbursts, and how it seemed like all of the veins on his upper body were trying to force their way through his skin. Even on his fingers, a skinny bump traveled all the way from the back of his hand to the cuticle, like some kind of grotesque anatomy figure.

The first to board any arriving rig was a group of burly animal control agents. Having been strewn across the delta like a toddler’s toys for several months, the rigs made a great home for various, terrifying genera of snakes and the occasional pissed-off alligator in the mud room. Next, there was an overall inspection of the state of the rig and a comprehensive plan and timeline was developed within a few hours. By the time our boots hit the metal grating of the main deck, every night was planned, down to the very last cable.

I started on the cable pulling team. We fumbled around in the heavy darkness with headlamps and ratcheting cable cutters and removed every piece of the 1970s, asbestos marine cable from the ship. Some of the cable was as big around as my thigh. We had to cut it with a sawzall and carry it out piece by piece on our shoulders, dumping it into huge buckets that were lifted from the rig by the tower crane that loomed over the ship. After all of it had been removed, we spent several days working with the welders, reforming the miles of cable tray that scaled every wall and covered every ceiling, bit by bit. None of the welders spoke English, but it didn’t matter since the noise of the huge banks of welders and generators reverberated through the metal hull of the structure at such a pitch that the drive back to the hotel at the end of the shift in my rusty ’73 Chevrolet with no muffler seemed like overbearing silence.

The communication was almost entirely non-verbal, a series of signs that was developed and molded by the crew. The high-pitched whooping, which could be heard through the foam earplugs we were required to wear, was used to signal different things, depending on the activity. I was surprised at how efficient and fast paced this communicative system was considering the variance of languages, dialects, and cultures we had on each team.

The huge spools of cable were lifted onto the rig by way of the tower crane and placed near a porthole, or stairway, or cable chase where they were balanced on a thick piece of rigid pipe. Four of the bigger guys would then lift in onto a set of rolling jacks that would allow the spool to turn. We would line up smallest to largest and climb head first into the hole in 10-15 foot increments, the first guy dragging the end of the cable along its specific route, the rest of us spreading out equally on the tray and jerking the cable along. The foreman stayed at the spool controlling its rate of turn. When a bulkhead was reached, the lead would let out a loud “whoop!” which would travel successively back to the foreman who would stop feeding the cable. The lead would climb down from the rack and find his way to the other side, the second puller would move against the bulkhead, and everyone would spread themselves equally between them, collecting around corners and rises.

When the lead had found the other side of the bulkhead and made his way onto the rack, the second would send a “whoop!” up the line and the pulling would continue, slowly feeding and routing the cable until it reached its destination and we would hear a longer “whoop!”, settle our portion of cable neatly into the rack, climb down from our perch, and meet with the foreman to plan the next pull. We did this hundreds of times for hundreds of cables of different sizes and weights, and we were good at it. The ends of the cable were coiled, labeled with numbers associated with the design prints and left hanging. They would be terminated by the day crew the following morning.

My first night on the yard, I was placed on a different rig, which was in the final week of the renovation. The rig was much larger and the crews were experienced and fast. I’ll never forget walking into the main engine room, where four Caterpillar diesel engines the size of school busses stood in a row running at full capacity. The room was incredibly hot from a combination of the activity, generators, and beating Mississippi sun that had just set. Welder’s blinding light flashed off of the metal walls and pipe fitters screamed at one another and banged on huge metal exhaust pipes. And the electricians scampered, in huge synchronized groups, on the canopy of crisscrossed racks overhead whooping loudly and raining huge, labored drops of blackened sweat on the generators and workers below, causing a steam to fill the room from top to bottom that smelled like sweat, smoldering metal and diesel fuel.

It was beautiful. It was like a fucking jungle.

When we got off work, we looked like coal miners, black from head to foot except for the strip across our eyes where the requisite safety glasses were strapped. Our clothes were completely drenched with sweat. I got in the habit of taking multiple shirts with me on my shift, just to retain some sense of comfort. After a couple of welders suffered heat strokes, we were required to take five minute breaks once every two hours and drink a quart of water under the supervision of our foreman.

When the shift was over, we would stack our tools in the gang-box and line up and the buck-hoist, which would take us down to the surface of the yard where we clock out and stumble through the gate to our vehicles.

One particular night, we got off at 6:30am, passing the day crew we had seen 12 hours before at the turnstiles on our way to the huge dirt parking lot filled with aging Chevrolet short-beds and beat up Toyota Corollas that were plastered with local union numbers and Bush ’00 stickers.

Up until this point, I had lived a fairly quiet and solitary life in an extended stay motel down the road. I was rooming with a huge, racist bald man who worked day shift in the same yard, so I never saw him. At a lull in the action, Kerry had somehow convinced me that we should drink some beers after work, his treat. So we hit the grocery store deli for breakfast and grabbed a 12-pack of Bud Light on the way out the door.

At that age I was not especially practiced in inebriated self-control. And this is how it happened that I was convinced to go with Kerry to his hometown of Calhoun City, Mississippi on a whim.

Calhoun City is just east of Grenada, Mississippi, west of Okalona, and North of Eupora. It is literally in the middle of nowhere, the backwoods, if you will. In fact, Calhoun City may be behind the backwoods, or at least partially obscured by the backwoods.

It was about a five hour drive from Pascagoula. Within that time, I had mostly sobered up and come to terms with my horrible decision. I couldn’t show I was terrified because I had been talking big-shit with Kerry all day and he thought I was a badass, which either says something about my persuasiveness or his intellect.

Either way, we stopped at his brother’s house somewhere south of Calhoun City so he could come with us. This was a complete surprise to his brother, who seemed taken aback by Kerry’s sudden arrival, almost like he hadn’t called at all. The guy had a family, a dirty family, but a seemingly happy one, in their tiny trailer sitting several hundred feet from a fairly major highway. There were a couple of kids piddling around in the front yard in various states of undress. When we pulled up, he quickly shut his wife inside and herded the kids to the door. We both got out of the truck and walked towards him, but he and Kerry stepped over to the side to have a personal conversation immediately, leaving me to the side, tamping dirt with my steel-toed boot.

He went inside and grabbed a small bag and we all got back in the truck, Kerry riding in the middle.

I never learned his name, even though we spent a lot of time together in the next 24 hours. This was mainly because of the colossal wad of chewing tobacco that was always tucked away in his cheek. He used nearly an entire can with each dip and packed it with sickening force into his mouth, with the practiced air of a veteran user. At the time he was using his right cheek, but I could see that he used to use his left from the stretch marks on it. Between the omnipresent Copenhagen and the heavy country drawl, we ended up communicating with signs and social cues, much like I did with the foreign workers in the shipyard, when we spoke at all.

Since I couldn’t understand him anyway, and because I was nursing a hangover and incredibly sleepy, I ignored their conversation for the rest of the ride to Calhoun City. We rolled into the outskirts of town and started stopping at different houses, trailers, and places of business talking to people. After the first couple of stops it became evident that it had been many years, maybe a decade, since Kerry had been home. And there were two polar reactions to the site of his squinty, scarred face, “Hey, Kerry came home!” or, “Oh shit, Kerry is home.” By the time we made it to the fourth or fifth place, the news was ahead of us and the people were expecting him.

The final stop was his mother’s house. She too, knew we were coming and was waiting in a chair outside the house when we arrived. I suddenly knew my place. I was the awkward, youngish friend of a prodigal son.

“Who are you?” they would ask.

“I’m the guy that got drunk with Kerry this morning. Nice to meet you.” I would answer jovially.

His mother greeted us with caution. Slightly hugging Kerry and looking me up and down suspiciously. “I don’t want to be here anymore than you want me here.” I tried to tell her with my eyes. They sat on the couch and talked like a family while I passed out in a green recliner for several hours. Maybe I would wake up in the morning, get back to Pascagoula and beg forgiveness from the superintendent. Maybe all this was just a trip home to see Mama. Not so lucky.

Kerry shook me at around ten that night and motioned for me to get up. I could tell he had never quit drinking. We ate some from-frozen chicken fingers over the kitchen sink in the dark and went outside where his brother was waiting in the truck. We drove around for a bit making more stops and surprising more people, eventually getting to a bar called The Dry Dock which has a Confederate flag painted on its dance floor and was packed full of people in their Calhoun City finest, dancing and singing along with the country band on stage. They pulled some kind of strings with the bouncers and got me in. Kerry put a High Life in my hand and I made my way toward the stage.

I was about halfway done with the beer and had just started a conversation with a cute little southern belle who thought I was 21 and seemed fascinated by the story I’m telling you now, when I heard Kerry yell something and turned around to watch him shatter a glass ashtray on another fellow’s cheekbone.

Kerry’s brother was immediately in the fray, tobacco juice squirting from his mouth like some agitated sprinkler repeatedly punching a seemingly random bystander. I figured that the best way to help would be getting people away from Kerry, so I jumped in and started pushing malicious looking people away from him, which only escalated the situation. When the bouncers finally jumped in, they pushed us out of the front door and the other group of miscreants out the back.

We convened at his truck. The brother was already in the driver’s seat staring forward. I got the feeling that he knew this was coming and I was beginning to understand why Kerry hadn’t been home for years. Kerry poured himself into the center passenger seat and began pummeling the dashboard screaming nonsensically and sobbing heavily. The blood from his knuckles sprayed onto the windshield, where it would remain, congealed brown, for the duration of our relationship.

He eventually composed himself, to a degree, and exited the truck to retrieve a beer from the cooler in the back. I got one for myself and his brother as Kerry announced that we should “…go find that motherfucker.” Apparently, an ashtray to the face was not enough to avenge the horrible wrong that this fellow had inflicted upon him.

It turns out that the guy was the current husband of Kerry’s high school sweetheart and had said something demeaning about or to him in the short time we were in the bar. Like a dutiful chauffer, his brother started the car and drove out of the parking lot. Kerry gave him some kind of coordinates that he seemed to understand and we sped down the road in the pitched darkness.

Eventually, we arrived at what Kerry thought was our target’s house. I got out of the passenger side and Kerry climbed out after me and slung what was left of his beer into the woods next to the road. He was teetering significantly on the sloped side of the road, but he got his footing after a moment. He told us to keep driving so that no one would know he was there if they returned and to come back in a few minutes.

We didn’t speak as he drove down the road and parked in a vacant lot, sipping our beers and looking out into the blackness. Passing the house a few minutes later, we didn’t see Kerry or any additional cars. We assumed that he was lying in wait and went the other direction, this time parking on the side of the road and killing the headlights. I’m sure he was wondering just what the hell I was doing there as we turned around and headed back, waiting even longer this time. When we came upon the house again from the opposite direction, he noticed that Kerry had in fact passed out in the ditch on the side of the road where we had left him.

His brother got out of the truck and pulled him up, walking him to the truck and laying him in the seat on top of me. He was still whispering in a calloused voice about all of the horrible things he would do his adversary. When we got back to his mother’s house, I tried to tenderly pry him out of the vehicle, and he took a drunken swing at me. His brother shook his head and we left him there hanging halfway out of the truck, like some virulent art piece.

I fell asleep again in the green recliner.

When I woke up his mother was sitting on the couch on the opposite wall watching the television and playing absentmindedly with the edge of her nightgown. His brother was in the kitchen and Kerry was gone in his truck. I went outside to smoke a cigarette and to feel less awkward. He returned while I was standing outside and gave me a sausage biscuit out of a white paper bag. “Helluva night, right?” he yelled, as I wordlessly accepted the package, “Let’s hit the road!”

I thought we were headed back to Pascagoula, but instead we spent the latter part of the morning drinking more beer before Kerry showed his silent brother and I a natural dirt berm in a dried up lake bed near his mother’s house. He called us pussies when we wouldn’t ride in the bed while he ramped it in his truck. He crushed the front bumper pretty badly, split his head on the steering wheel, and screamed about it for a few minutes before he admitted defeat and we headed back to Pascagoula.

After we dropped his brother off, Kerry asked me to drive back to the coast. He slept the rest of the way, head bouncing on the passenger side window. Waking up on occasion to bitch about my cornering or turn up the radio for some obnoxious radio rock song.

When we got to the hotel, he promised that he would get me a new job, that he had all kinds of connections, and that he would take care of me. I never saw or heard from him again.

Ian Hoppe is a student, writer, draftsman, musician, and electrician in Birmingham, Alabama. Ian will graduate from The University of Alabama at Birmingham in May of 2013 with a degree in Philosophy and Economics. He is a contributor to the Birmingham Free Press and maintains the blog Polymath Moshpit. He also works for a local engineering firm as an AutoCAD operator, plays with Birmingham based Irish-pub group Jasper Coal, and dabbles in computer science. He lives with his partner Nicole and their two dogs and two cats.

“To Sell a House” by Brent Tubbs

It is called a Charleston side yard. I’ve been to Charleston, but I didn’t see a house that looked like mine, however, in Birmingham to label something as a Charleston this or Savannah that is what the architects and designers tend to do to give the buyer that sense of traditional chic that helps them write a bigger check than necessary. We bought the house at the beginning of our second year of marriage.

The house is two stories with a detached garage that has an apartment over it. The color is a kind of muted grass green that blends into the trees and shrubs that encase the house. The side yard is really just a ten foot strip of pea gravel that runs along the side of the house next door. The houses are tucked in real tight next to each other along the street, each with a front porch that faces the street and a side porch facing the side yard that juts up against the windowless first story of the house next door. There is a sleeping porch upstairs that looks out toward the street and there is a tree in the side yard whose branches reach along and around the screening of the porch. In the spring and summer when the leafs are full, it feels a little like being in a tree house, sitting out there in the cool of dawn as the sun lifts over the ridge to the east, a hot cup of coffee on the table where you prop up your feet, the big brown lab stuffed onto the small outdoor sofa with you, his head in your lap.

We didn’t celebrate the fifth anniversary. Instead, we wrestled over a settlement agreement. I think she went to the Dominican Republic with some friends and I got drunk on rum at the bar down the street from my tiny little apartment in Irving, Texas. I wept bitterly that night and many more since then, less now as time has passed. I moved to Dallas for a new job as the marriage crumbled around me. Truthfully, I didn’t have the courage necessary to go through a divorce in the midst of my family and friends, to stand in the middle of a war of words and affairs and the parting and parceling of property. I fought from afar of the field. I chose to fight with artillery, gave ground that was off no value, but lobbed unmerciful hell down for every inch of which I felt was mine. In the end, I got the house. For months, I didn’t return to it, didn’t think of it, and let it sit quietly so that all the noise could dissipate.

After the divorce, I remained in Irving for another year. Occasionally, I’d fly back to Birmingham for a weekend, the first time I came back the bare emptiness of the house shocked me. That hurt that I thought had settled to the bottom of my heart like a slow-falling silt in the deep shelf of the ocean was stirred up by that bareness, all the elements of home stripped away leaving just a house—a bare lonely forgotten house. I slept out in the apartment over the garage that first weekend and then every time I came back to the house afterwards over that fall, winter, and spring. There was some furniture left up in the apartment – my big screen television and a sectional sofa- and it was small and felt full and not empty. My little white dog with the brindle patches that I adopted from the pound would come back with me when I drove home for week long stays. She liked coming back to the house, even in its cold empty state she saw and felt home.

People asked incessantly what I was going to do with the house. Everyone knew it was not practical or financially responsible for me to keep the house. It was just a house. They didn’t understand. I quit my job in Irving in late spring and moved back to the Charleston side yard in Birmingham, staying out in the garage apartment, drinking too much and too late into the night, seeing and hearing things about my friends and neighbors that I just as soon never had known, but we all hear the things we rather not. After three months, I started sleeping in the house again. I was unemployed, divorced, staring down the age of forty, and slowing bleeding out my savings while taking long walks on the wooded trails behind the neighborhood with my sweet little dog, playing video games, watching NCIS marathons, and flirting with the twenty something bartender to the point of danger in the wee hours of the morning. The house became less cold, less empty, again a home.

Sustainability is in a lot of ways a made up word that is less about meaning and more about a direction. That life of leisure and resplendent laziness I was living was not sustainable. At the end of the summer, I started sending out resumes. Soon I was interviewing. I turned down three jobs. I was hoping beyond hope a rich uncle or a winning lottery ticket or maybe just manna from Heaven would fall down from the sky and let me keep playing video games and hanging out with my dog all day. Fortune didn’t fall upon me like a cool morning dew in the dog days of summer. My savings shrank and I accepted a position in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The last three weeks before moving to Tulsa my ex-wife let my big brown lab come and stay with me and my little white brindle patched pound puppy and we explored the woods behind the neighborhood around the lake and up and over the ridge to the east where it was posted “No Trespassing”. We ran at night underneath the bright moon and sometimes in a warm rain, and we sat in the side yard next to a fire in the little fire pit the previous owner had built, the smoke drifting up toward the stars and the blinking lights of planes passing overhead.

It is winter now, and I am in Tulsa. So, too, is the little white dog with the brindle patches. Whenever we can spot three or four days of free time on the calendar we jump in our car and race across Oklahoma and Arkansas, dip into Tennessee and cross the northern quarter section of Mississippi and go home. We miss home.

People ask me what I am going to do with the house. Why I don’t sell the house? The reason is silly and it is simple and will make no sense to anyone but me. In that house dwells my home and the memories of her and of me and a big brown lab and a little white dog with brindle patches and it is the last place on earth where those memories live. If I sell the house then the joy that was will no longer exist and the erosive nature of time will tear away at the memories and it will be as if there never was an us, or a home that was warm by the nature of the love that was within its walls. That will bleed away into a thousand different days of get up and go to work and go home to a drab little apartment in some transient place like Tulsa or Dallas or Denver or Pittsburgh. The knowledge that I was loved by her will bleed away as well. That I was loved will no longer exist. That we were will no longer exist. That I was will drift upward and disappear into the night sky above like smoke toward the bright stars and blinking lights of planes passing overhead.

Brent Tubbs is a graduate of the University of Alabama who now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is his first published work.

“Tributary: Becoming Green Warriors of the Red Earth Country” by Leah Alford

Summer air here can be felt, almost fingered, it’s so succulent with moisture. At high temperatures, it’s chokingly humid, but in more moderate weather, it’s velvet and invasive against the skin. In Alabama at the southernmost end of the Appalachians, everyone wades the water/ air mix many evenings during the warm seasons. This state has an abundance of water resources; some popular forms of water contact are boating, fishing, water skiing, and swimming. When I was in college swimmers went to old strip pits or ‘swimming holes’ on streams; the romantically inclined went ‘creekbanking’ with picnic lunch and beer. My own tastes run mostly lower profile. I have a lifelong history, here and elsewhere, of plunging and sampling my way through the pleasures of lakeshore and seashore sitting, walking beside streams with my mother and lifting colorful stones out of the water, viewing swamps from moving autos, and following creeks to guide me through forests with no trails. After college, my husband and I lived with a view of water out the window, on a houseboat. I tried swimming in a slough off the Black Warrior River. One day he pointed to two traveling lines of splash on the surface where I had just been floating. “Snakes,” he said. I stopped swimming!

After moving back to town we often drove out to the places near water. I’ve watched the cobalt blue radiance of cave walls receding downwards under huge spring waters; I’ve walked with a group up the middle of a large shallow creek instead of alongside. In quiet, pooled places, I learned how to send stones rippling across the water surface by throwing with spin. A haze of the everyday obscures these enjoyments like the protective colorations on toads, and they have to be noticed instantaneously and often privately. Huge fun for us, they didn’t always make for sparkling party conversation. But by keeping the visual and tactile senses tuned, you can lead a life of sudden amphibious incidents, making smaller but intensely meaningful splashes.

The old southern phrase ‘bourbon and branch water’ reflects back to the original freshness of watersheds in America. In my lifetime, both state and region have always been in need of economic growth, and sometimes its bountiful waters haven’t always had the attention I feel they should. That said, this can be true anywhere. We’re now seeing it in the news every day.

In the eighties we moved into the country and I began recording riparian lore. I now live in a dense forest, among the oaks, pines, maples, sweetgums, poplars, and dogwoods that help keep the moisture content in the air high–an Appalachian jungle. About a hundred and fifty yards away is a branch that’s five or six feet wide. Creekside is actually the place I prefer to be, my water of choice. In late spring and early summer heat, after walking through the yellow-green razzle-dazzle of the plushly leafed woods, and on through the brush of a now empty, scraped down lakebed, we arrive at the rapids area. Small sensualities are here for the sampling. Reddish and charcoal colored, the rocks underpin the froth, water at its most frivolous, scattering light into glitter. The stream is named “Bee Branch” for its ‘busy as a bee’ qualities. The orange-red, mud-laden torrents from the early spring rains have gushed off, so we can easily step across now, stone by stone. Flanked by a steep bluff, we look across at the march of the scrub pines on the lakebed shore, with a garnish of yellow wildflowers near the edge. Upstream, we glance towards darkening shades, as the sun-gleam of the rapids fades into stiller, reflective areas, a muted frieze of shadows and leaves. Here the branch twists and frets against its sandstone trough; downstream it deepens and pools into a swimming hole with fish, and then quiets and scrapes along in a mud and pebble bed in the shallows. It empties into a winding lake, probably man-made, that narrows back to stream. Farther on, it goes into Hurricane Creek, a longer, wider body of water that eventually reaches the Black Warrior River. Upstream, the map shows its origin in a lake fed by two other creeks that also issue from lakes. In all, it is the recipient of run-off from three thousand acres of watershed. Known for biodiversity, the area has a bounty of flora and fauna. Feasting senses now, I would later think about the traveling of streams and their connecting points to each other, about why the word ‘branch’, taken from the structural joinery of trees, means ‘creek’, and about the fixed amount of water on earth.

Visitors who come out to the house always want to go down to the branch. Some of my fondest memories with visiting friends happened alongside the water. My selected sitting area of the creek is a stage for the presentation of incidents from the stories of many passers-by. There’s the constant flux of the rapids water itself, pattering loudly and with voice-like effects, and the volcanic blue jots of damsel flies. A spotted sandpiper has pranced the edges to our chorus of “Look, look, look”. There are quick glows through the brush – glimpses of the Yellow-Breasted Chat in the daytime; eyes of small animals towards evening. Tracks of deer, raccoons, and foxes appear periodically in side mud, the creek’s ledger of the previous night’s visitors. Driftwood arrives; bushes go upend after heavy rains, and fossilized calamites ferns keep popping up among the lichens and fallen mountain laurel petals. Poles gnawed by beavers appear, although these animals themselves are never seen. For a quick cool-off on a day when summer air is shimmering and heavy as quilts, I take a playful notion and go into the water. Nothing beats reclining in the shallow rapids, being slicked and soaked by cross-eddying water fingers, smelling fresh stream and moss reek. Back on the sand, seeing bubbling places, it’s easy to imagine varieties of monsters under the water’s surface. This is water you can get close to and be intimate with(1). We had the best visits and celebrations beside the water.

Up a smaller tributary, in deeper woods, it’s a different scenario. The change in the forest has come about by the time we approach this spot, leaf configurations shifting slyly around us. Here there are broadleaf wild magnolias skirting the stream, with their tropically sized foliage, and thicker expanses of ferns. The oaks and pines are gigantic in this less accessible area, with trunks a foot-and-a-half to two-feet in diameter. Our destination at first appears black amidst the irregular spaces of candlelight green. To reach this cozy nook we have to descend the sharp drop of the banks, bracing against the twisted trees that grasp the edges. The brook is about half the width of the branch it flows into. Directly ahead several boulders have intruded into and blocked the streambed, pinching the water into two falls, one ferocious and roaring unseen through a subsurface crack, and another arcing the other direction, a visible spray.

We have come the last few times wondering how long this rare cranny of a streamspot, and the surrounding forest, will remain as they are now. It is the late ’80s and a ‘sea changing’ new industry has arrived in the area. We not only want to slake our senses by taking in images, we are seeking comfort, strength, purpose and recharged spirits; and as a bonus, we’ll take metaphor and story. We stand on the islands of mud and sand, rivulets of all descriptions flowing at our feet. The water is pooled and murky in one place, mounding with cross-hatched ripples over pebbles another, rapids in miniature yet another. Dark boulders are furred with avocado and chartreuse mosses; the water is slithering and silver over their flat tops. Upstream the dazzle pales off like twilight. Holly hangs low over the creek cut. At our feet a rock engulfed by moss sprouts the first yellowish tendrils of an unknown vine. We see one perfect raccoon track and one black-winged damselfly. Not much of the sky is visible overhead through the meeting of prodigious ovate leaf variations. The peculiar humidity sizzles on our skin. The scenes here are more somber and contemplative than those at the barn dance of the main branch. We soak and steep our psyches in the waters and woods, until we’re sated. Civilization feels farther away, but we dwell on the threats to this remoteness that have begun to surface. Going back, we head into the graying scallops of forest.

All of these less splashy scenes occur in local ways. Without tremendous visibility, these types of water sports are sometimes as unintentionally plainspoken as the deeper toned places under the still water’s surface, as unknown as the day roosts of giant night-going moths in the adjacent forest. Notation is by those who prefer frogs, turtles, crayfish, and mental color-gathering along small water to the boating and swimming activities of big water. But as awareness grows there are more out there watching, besides the little wildling animals. I recall springside from the past, the words, if I had this I would never let it get away from me, rural accents joining those from the cities. It’s easy to imagine many other spots along these branches, many others savoring such moments unobtrusively. Creeks repeat themselves, inspiring and gathering infinite other unsung scenes and stories. A friend’s great blue heron sighting downstream mixes in with my recalled pleasures. Water, always on the move, “stops by” at our personal locations, having already been to many singular locales along the way. It brings a feast for the senses and refreshment for the spirit to each person; from this, intentions form.

Freshwater tributary systems have been intruded upon. Washing on, like the individual moments, pollutants also travel the waterways. The sequences of the natural world are blatant in these cases – what goes in upstream gets downstream, what happens to one part of water, essentially, eventually, happens to all. Water we see today travels to the Gulf, flows into the ocean.

Summer, peak water sport time, is going pell mell. The first cicada ‘screes’ sound, a few frogs chirp from the distant trees. The woods are an immense rooted salad seasoned with noisy buzzing bits. Away from the branches, sitting in the house with cats, evening steaminess stirs a reverie of remembrance and worry. I’ve had a long walk for many years along many waters. Past creeks I’ve known gleam like party crepe strands in the mind, celebratory, crackling as August suns. They attach like tributaries to the present translucent spray, green-black currents, and skeins of moss. Raining in my head, treasured images, like the frog hatch of hundreds at another streamside twenty years past. Along with them, the flotsam and jetsam from the wreck of humankind’s contact with nature, flows in: the first casual mention of the word “pollution”, heard thirty years ago from other children; excessive siltation; medical wastes on beaches; the former frog-yelling chorale after rains of five years ago lapping against many years of drought and decline in amphibian populations, distinctive voices from a puddle outside the window, gone; veteran fishermen talking about the deformities they see in their catches; sewage odors in former swimming places; fish kills; a crystal clear stream devoid of life due to altered pH from industrial run-off. All these things float in on the effluence of information, facts that stir actions. My sweet mental creeks swell and spill over the banks, turning from molten silver during twilights to the red mud color of erosion run-off seen after spring gullywashers. Moments spent deep in forests turn to motives. Somewhere in this soup are my intimate creekside perceptions with their festival airs, like the stubborn greenness of plants in the branch, or seaweed in the ocean. The bitter experience of environmental devastation mixes with those joyous brookside times we’ve all had, times that revealed why we need to tune our psyches to our natural surroundings and work to preserve them. Soon all up and down the branches, private fights about water are bubbling up and running together as everyone jumps in, trying to save personal slivers of stream and woods. After years of writing letters about distant rainforests and rivers, I am now faced with the defense of my own forest and water spots.

Two decades have gone by since that old defense, those past maneuvers. In some ways we won, protecting some lands and giving much offense to industrialists; in others, we lost and there were sad changes to our forest forever. Now, in 2012, I frequently learn of new citizens’ groups protecting Alabama’s natural resources, and a growing number of members of the International Waterkeepers’ Alliance devote themselves to our waterways. Hurricane Creek has its own Hurricane Creekkeeper, and its own advocacy group. Their efforts go to preserving both water quality and the scenic beauty for all to enjoy. Here upstream, our water will make it down to that creek, one day. At meetings about Alabama water keeping after the Gulf oil deluge of 2010, the speeches are rousing and the sentiments are fierce. “…These are our waters,” says John Wathen, Hurricane Creekkeeper. “They belong to all of you. Everyone in the United States has a right to eat a clean fish from these waters”. Real-life stories and poetry about the creek are being recorded; volunteers have helped clear debris out of it after the 2011 tornado.

I became fascinated with wilderness at the age of eight. In the foothills of the Appalachians of Virginia and Alabama, my attachment to nature was ripened and burnished. But my anecdotes are raindrops in a downpour, and these stories are far from done. The cool frenzy of rapids against the skin, the plunk-gulp sound of the unseen wild escapee that scurries into the water as we approach; small sensualities and quiet moments, flowing together, make a flood of resolve.

(1) Recently there is new knowledge of a hazard, a rare but deadly amoeba that has occasionally been contracted in warm Southeastern waters, calling for a new sense of caution about jumping into creeks and lakes and rivers, the way I used to do. The links below are the source of information about the rare, but fatal amoeba infection of the brain in southeastern waters:

Leah Alford is freelance writer with a lifelong fascination with the natural world. She has been published in Piedmont Literary Review, The Improvisor, and Snowy Egret. She lives in a forest near Cottondale, Alabama. More information is available on her blog: catwoodsporchparty.